What would you do if you ran an advertising platform with the power to reach 1.4 billion people?
Would you take a public policy defeat in your stride, and accept that a noisy group of activists in one market may have scuppered your plans? Or would you use your immense power to persuade, influence, and reiterate your rather shaky argument?
If you’re Mark Zuckerberg, you choose the latter option.
For the past few days, Indian Facebook users have been seeing the following prompt when they log into Facebook, whether through a browser or via the app:
The prompt asks users to “show your support for free basic internet services in India,” a sentiment that is difficult to disagree with. Indeed, that must be why Facebook does not provide the option to disagree. The only possible responses are “Not now” and “Yes, I’m In”.
Hit yes, and Facebook redirects users to a page asking them to support services like Facebook’s internet.org, which, as Quartz and several others have written before, provides a subpar internet experience that restricts the poorest and least educated users in the world to a walled garden of Facebook-approved content. (A recent fracas in India over the service led to Facebook accepting other services into its garden.)
Facebook is hardly alone in using the power of its platform to persuade its users. Uber recently included a message in its app, for customers in New York City, lobbying against mayor Bill de Blasio and a bill that would have capped Uber’s growth in the city. Google once blacked out its logo on its homepage to protest controversial internet regulations proposed in the US Congress.
It’s unclear, though, what Facebook is referring to when it says India soon “will decide on the future of services like internet.org.” While a recent report from India’s Department of Telecommunication suggested that content providers should not be gatekeepers, there doesn’t appear to be any pending legislation on net neutrality in India. A Facebook spokesperson said that the “campaign’s goal is to create awareness of the value of connectivity”, adding that ”our goal is to help give [India’s internet users] a voice with their government in sharing their support for programs like Internet.org that help overcome barriers to connectivity in their country.”
According to Nikhil Pahwa, who runs a tech and policy website called medianama.com and was among the people who started savetheinternet.in to protest internet.org, this is not the first campaign Facebook is running to shore up support for its free service. “They ran an SMS campaign a couple of months ago with the same misleading message, asking [people] to either give a missed call or respond” to the message, he says. “All this is a reaction to savetheinternet.in; we got a million [letters of support] so they want more.”