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GETTING A HEAD

Facebook has finally found someone for its toughest job in India

By Aria Thaker

At long last, Facebook has landed its man in India.

On Sept. 24, the social-media giant named Ajit Mohan, CEO of the Star India-owned video-streaming platform Hotstar, its new managing director and vice-president for the country. He will take charge in early 2019.

The post has been lying vacant since Umang Bedi quit last October.

“I look forward to championing India in Facebook and working with stakeholders across the spectrum to help build deep and meaningful communities across the country,” Mohan said in a statement.

He will have a much expanded role compared to his predecessors. Besides sales, he will also be in charge of strategy, communications, and policy, reporting directly to the company’s Menlo Park headquarters instead of its Asia-Pacific office in Singapore. For this expanded role, Facebook was offering a compensation of around $2 million (Rs14.5 crore) plus stock options, much higher than what it offered its earlier India heads, The Times of India reported on Sept. 05.

Mohan won’t be in charge of Facebook’s other popular arms: messaging service WhatsApp and photo-sharing platform Instagram.

His expertise will come into play as Facebook invests heavily in video, especially after the company bought the rights to stream all of Spanish football’s La Liga matches in India. After all, earlier this year, Hotstar set a world record for the most concurrent viewers for a single event by an online broadcaster during the Indian Premier League (IPL).

Ironically for Mohan, Facebook last year bid more than $600 million for the rights to stream IPL cricket matches from 2018 to 2022 but ended up losing to Star India, which bid $2.6 billion.

The road to Mohan’s hiring was not smooth, though.

Reports released well before his appointment was announced, including a FactorDaily investigation, said that candidates were wary of accepting the position given the threat of being held personally liable for users’ misdeeds. At a time when India’s considering making social- media platforms accountable for issues like fake news and cyber-bullying, these concerns are not surprising.

Even otherwise, Facebook, with over 250 million users in India, has had a rough few years in the country.

The Mark Zuckerberg-led firm’s troubles include the country’s telecom regulator choosing net neutrality over its Free Basics proposal in 2016, the menace of fake news, and the fury over revelations that personal data of over 500,000 Indian Facebook users may have been pilfered by British political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica.

Chief among Mohan’s challenges will be recovering the trust Facebook has lost among the establishment. This will be crucial as it battles problems like the delay in the launch of its payments platform and the government’s push for data localisation that requires all companies operating in India to store certain data within its boundaries.

Following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, minister for information and technology and law, Ravi Shankar Prasad, warned Facebook and other social-media platforms of “stringent action” if they tried to influence the country’s electoral process. He even threatened to “summon” Zuckerberg.

In the meantime, the Election Commission of India, which had earlier forged a partnership with Facebook to encourage voter registration, initially considered dropping the tie-up but ultimately decided to go ahead with it.

As the 2019 general elections approach, the stakes of fake news and targeted ads will only rise further. This menace has plagued WhatsApp, too. The messaging platform, which is also reportedly looking to hire an India head, has faced heat in the wake of lynchings reportedly sparked by fake or inflammatory messages shared on it.

On Sept. 24, reports said that WhatsApp has hired a US-based grievance officer for India—one of the demands Prasad had made of CEO Chris Daniels during a meeting last month.