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What Zuckerberg can learn from Google about wooing India

Mark Zuckerberg is like a head of state. Facebook, the company he founded and heads has 1.6 billion users across the planet. If it was a nation, it would be more populous than China.

columns Updated: Feb 12, 2016 15:21 IST
Narayanan Madhavan
Narayanan Madhavan
Hindustan Times
Mark Zuckerberg,Mark Andreessen,Facebook
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the F8 summit in San Francisco, California in this file photo.(AFP)

Mark Zuckerberg is like a head of state. Facebook, the company he founded and heads has 1.6 billion users across the planet. If it was a nation, it would be more populous than China.

His estimated wealth is around $45 billion. That’s more than Rs 300,000 crore.

So it makes real news when he gets snubbed by the Indian telecom regulator when he is trying for the next 500 million users and possible wealth to match. But it takes grace to accept defeat and carry on--as he seems to have done. Perhaps the Harvard geek deserves a second chance. For Indians, it is not yet time to unfriend Zuckerberg.

After the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) struck down differential pricing of Internet tariffs--and in effect, Facebook’s Free Basics initiative to offer a stripped-down version of the Net to digitally unconnected--FB’s board member Mark Andreessen raised the ghost of colonialism in a sarcastic tweet on TRAI that left many Indians convinced that the regulator was anything but wrong.

As the venture capitalist hastily apologised and retreated Zuckerberg was quick to douse the fires.

“I want to respond to Marc Andreessen’s comments about India yesterday. I found the comments deeply upsetting, and they do not represent the way Facebook or I think at all,” the 31-year-old said in a post that attracted 141,000 ‘likes’ on the last count from among 49 million followers.

“India has been personally important to me and Facebook. Early on in my thinking about our mission, I traveled to India and was inspired by the humanity, spirit and values of the people,” he said. “As our community in India has grown, I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the need to understand India’s history and culture. I’ve been inspired by how much progress India has made in building a strong nation and the largest democracy in the world, and I look forward to strengthening my connection to the country.”

Mark Z, unlike Marc A, sounds humble. The cynic may wonder if the venture capitalist on the board of Facebook was trying to play bad cop to Zuckerberg’s good cop but there is plenty in the CEO’s words to suggest that he may match up to his words.

That can be done only through initiatives that go beyond normal commercial activity.

It is tempting to compare Facebook’s activities in India with those of Google with whom it competes for advertising dollars globally in the digital age. Google has begun offering free wi-fi in Indian railway stations, leads the pack in boosting local languages and has dabbled in education initiatives linked to India. Google’s Doodle routinely celebrates Indian festivals and historic figures.

And yes, Google’s parent Alphabet Inc has an Indian CEO in Sundar Pichai for its core search business and a fellow Chennai man, Kavitark Ram Shriram, on its board.

Interestingly, Ram Shriram was on the executive team of pioneering browser firm Netscape, which Andreessen founded.

To start to walk his talk on India, Zuckerberg may like to have an Indian on its board or, at any rate, do something more Indian than have a maverick board member talk in sweeping terms about a nation that he does not even seem to have visited.

Google has been working with the Indian government, not showing immature attitude at its regulators. Zuckerberg’s famous associations with India so far have been photo opportunities with its prime minister and a jog in front of India Gate.

Fancy a Second Coming in India, Mark? Or, should we call that a reincarnation?

First Published: Feb 12, 2016 15:21 IST