Two seemingly unrelated events were significant last week. One was a visit to India by search giant Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai, and the other, a fervent appeal by Facebook to support its FreeBasics initiative to provide Internet access to the digitally poor, which provoked controversy as it threatens Net Neutrality advocated by activists.
But the two events are related, and here’s how.
First, some visual imagery. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed students at IIT, Delhi in a town hall meeting in October, explaining Facebook’s vision to digitally transform the world. He then jogged in front of the India Gate for a photo opportunity. Pichai last week addressed students at Shri Ram College of Commerce, my alma mater, speaking of similar goals. He also posed with a cricket bat for photographers.
Fact is, these two gentlemen want to capture India’s imagination through talk and imagery. Their publicity machines are working in carefully matched moves on a chessboard called India, where the number of mobile Internet users is expected to roughly double to 300 million levels by 2017 compared with 2014.
Facebook, as I said once, is trying to be the “social OS” by using its monopolistic network of users linked by friendships. Google is building on its Android platform (which Pichai championed) that is now the global standard for mobile penetration. It’s Google, not Twitter, which is Facebook’s business rival.
FreeBasics is to Facebook what Android is to Google. Both of them want advertising dollars buzzing in from smartphones. Google is betting on search. Facebook is betting on data analytics linked to user information.
Now, FreeBasics opens up possibilities for Facebook -- and this is fine in principle. But what it did last week was to ask its users to support FreeBasics in a campaign. But there was no alternative option or vote. This is precisely what activists are worried about. In one simple move, Facebook used its awesome reach to push its own case. Net Neutrality is all about equal, unfettered access.
Google got into trouble with European regulators when its search algorithms weeded out some sites ostensibly because it was fighting spam through filters. Facebook’s campaign does through selective reach what Google tried through selective search.
In effect, both are cases for regulators to study using principles of competition, fairplay and equality. The world is bigger than geeks with ambitious business plans.