Facebook has hired a former Uber executive to fill its trickiest job in India

Stay in the shadows.
Stay in the shadows.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
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Facebook’s public policy head post was vacant for nearly a year. But today (Sept. 20), the tech giant appointed Rajiv Aggarwal to what’s billed as a key role.

Aggarwal is stepping into the controversial shoes of Ankhi Das, Facebook India’s last public policy head, who quit in October 2020 after being accused of refusing to enforce hate speech rules against right-wing leaders. 

Besides keeping a check on personal biases, Aggarwal also has to battle overbearing authorities. After all, the government has been stepping up scrutiny of social media platforms, policing content, and controlling the flow of data, among other things.

How will Rajiv Aggarwal’s Uber experience help?

Aggarwal comes to Facebook after nearly two years as as the public policy head for India and South Asia at another behemoth American tech firm—Uber. However, there are questions around whether his experience at the ride-hailing and delivery company will be of any use at Facebook.

“Any public policy experience is a multi-edge sword. It can help, but can harm as well. Especially because Uber and Facebook are very different companies,” says Yugal Joshi, vice-president at consultancy Everest Group. “Facebook’s platforms a have a significant role in shaping people’s thinking.

What does the public policy head at Facebook do?

At Facebook, Aggarwal’s job is “to define and lead important policy development initiatives for Facebook in India on an agenda that covers user safety, data protection and privacy, inclusion and internet governance,” the company said in a press release.

Before joining Uber, Aggarwal was an Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer for 26 years. He played a pivotal role in shaping India’s first ever national policy on intellectual property rights. Salman Waris, managing partner at law firm TechLegis, says the IAS experience will help Aggarwal deal with Facebook’s issues in India’s Hindi belt.

Moreover, he will likely be in a “much better position to handle political pressures” than Das was, because IAS officers “are trained and have hands-on experience dealing with different government dispensations,” Waris added.

Separating the person from the job

Some of Das’s personal posts, whether they were celebrating Narendra Modi’s victory or displaying anti-Muslim tendencies, went against her role as a non-partisan official.

“Expressing these views in the public domain when you’re holding the public policy head position at a company like Facebook, which has been accused of being biased by both the government and citizens, was a blunder on her part,” said Waris. “It is best to avoid being very active on social media in such roles.” In other words, Aggarwal should maintain a lower profile when it comes to his personal affiliations.

Meanwhile, Facebook has time and again emphasized that the public policy team does not call the shots. “The reality is no individual—including some of those whose names have been mentioned, who are people who report to me—has that kind of unilateral decision-making power in this organization to influence choices,” said Facebook’s Indian managing director Ajit Mohan while denying political biases during the debacle with Das last year.

Facebook must build “a credible profile and perception of neutrality” by bringing more stakeholders into the conversation and relying on tech, says Joshi. “The new head needs to proactively engage policy makers, influencers, and other entities, in addition to enhancing Facebook’s technology and AI-driven algorithm for content management.”

It remains to be seen if the company wants any of this.