Did FB use Digital India campaign to promote Internet.org?

  • Vignesh Radhakrishnan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 29, 2015 10:44 IST
Combination photo of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, showing their support for the ‘Digital India’ campaign.

Once CEO Mark Zuckerberg and our very own Prime Minister Narendra Modi sported the tri-coloured ‘Digital India’ Facebook profiles, the dam doors opened and the social media was painted in the colours of the national flag with many users changing their profile pictures to support the cause.

It was all going well. Our tri-coloured flag. A cause to support. A feel good profile picture. Until a small ‘code-block’ in Facebook’s ‘support Digital India page’ showed these words -- ‘Internet.org’. Once that was spotted, users went berserk.

People posted questions, drew conclusions, developed conspiracy theories around those few lines of code on many social media platforms, including Facebook. All those discussions revolved around one question - ‘Is Facebook using Digital India campaign as a mask for promoting Internet.org?’

Facebook, however, rejected the allegations, saying it was an engineer’s error.

“There is absolutely no connection between updating your profile picture for Digital India and Internet.org,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.

“An engineer mistakenly used the words “Internet.org profile picture” as a shorthand name he chose for part of the code. But this product in no way connects to or registers support for Internet.org. We are changing the code today to eliminate any confusion.”

Want to know what the fuss is all about? Internet.org, a Facebook project to subsidise data for people in countries where costs of data access are high and incomes low, was in the midst of a controversy over alleged violation of the principles of net neutrality.

Net neutrality means that equal treatment be accorded to all internet traffic and no priority be given to an entity or company based on payment to content or service providers such as telecom companies, which is seen as discriminatory.

A government-appointed panel has opposed projects like Facebook’s Internet.org, which allow access to certain websites without mobile data charges. The data charges are borne by the websites or service providers.

According to critics, it will deny access to sites and services that aren’t a part of the platform.

Reddit user ‘techaddict0099’, one of the first to start the trend, posted a screenshot of the code on Indian thread of the social platform. The post titled ‘This is what shows up when you visit page I support Digital India!’ was widely quoted by many others on their timelines who wanted to know what Internet.org has to do with Digital India campaign.

Screenshot of the source code (Picture courtesy: Reddit)

“The Internet.org class name in a page which is supposedly to “Support Digital India” is not coincidental,” posted Pratik Sinha, a software engineer from Gujarat, on his Facebook page.

“Look, I’m a software engineer. Every software engineer is given a description before doing a project and the fact that these words ‘internetorg’ creep into the page meant for digital India can’t be coincidental,” Sinha later told HT.

“I’m not even remotely suggesting that this is a malice on the part of Facebook. After all the code does not have any utility as it is. But it is definitely part of a larger purpose. It will be used for metrics collection. They are doing this to understand how Indians may respond to Internet.org,” he added.

Many others shared similar concerns on other social media platforms.

“Right now article is being written if Modi govt is hand in gloves with Facebook over Internet.org that’s against net neutrality,” Rahul Roushan (@rahulroushan) posted on Twitter.

“So changing ur fb pic into digital India support, you have just voted against net neutrality,” Ravi (@ravi_4prince) posted on Twitter.

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