At 12.12 pm on Oct. 28, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg walked on to a stage at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi to a resounding applause.
What followed was an hour-long closely controlled question-and-answer session, nonetheless termed as a town hall, with one main focus: Making a pitch for Facebook’s controversial Internet.org project.
The agenda was clear from the first question that Zuckerberg was asked: “Why are you showing so much interest in India? Answer honestly.”
Conveniently, and perhaps in all honesty, the 31-year-old Harvard dropout dived straight into explaining India’s place in the Facebook universe. After all, the social network has 130 million users in the country—second only to the US.
But at the heart of Facebook’s mission in the subcontinent, Zuckerberg alluded, was the company’s contentious effort to bring the internet to millions of unconnected Indians.
Internet.org—now rebranded as Free Basics—is a free, limited internet service for the subscribers of Reliance Communications in India. Zuckerberg had unveiled it in the country during his last visit to New Delhi in October 2014. Since its launch, it has been strongly criticised by net neutrality activists across the world.
At the town hall, Zuckerberg attempted to allay some of these concerns. To a question from a professor from Bengaluru on whether Internet.org supports net neutrality, Zuckerberg gave a decisive yes.
“Absolutely! Net neutrality is an important principle and we are doing a lot to push it,” he said. “So with Free Basics, we are letting developers offer zero-rated services. This is powerful. We are not being a filter of any content going through that.”
However, this is what Facebook has to say on its Internet.org participation guidelines page:
“What they say and what they do are two different things.” Nikhil Pahwa, founder of the technology news website Medianama, told Quartz. “What Facebook is doing is to suck the internet into Facebook.”
Already in some parts of the world, millions believe that Facebook is the internet.
In fact, at Davos this year, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg told the crowd that in the developing world, “people will walk into phone stores and say ‘I want Facebook.’ People actually confuse Facebook and the internet in some places.”
At the town hall, however, Zuckerberg insisted that there is absolutely nothing insidious about Internet.org, which aims to provide connectivity and, as a result, access to education, healthcare, financial services, to millions of Indians.
“In India, a million people have access to internet because of the work we do,” he said. “Some of the people advocating net neutrality say that there should be no zero rated internet. Zero rating is important to ensure that more people get on to the internet.”
But zero-rated internet—where telecom operators do not charge customers for using certain websites or apps—remains a contentious subject in India. While some like Zuckerberg believe it is essential to bring billions online, critics say that well-funded websites and apps will take over the internet, killing not just innovation by smaller players but also the quality of internet available to the next billion.
Amid the relentless pitching for Internet.org and Free Basics (and net neutrality), Zuckerberg was also asked about two of Facebook’s innovation projects: the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift and the company’s artificial intelligence research.
There were also a handful of questions on Zuckerberg’s entrepreneurial journey. That was entirely expected given that India now finds itself in the throes of a startup revolution.
And then, there were a few curveballs, like this one: “If you were gifted with a superpower from some aliens, what would that be?” Or, the ardent enquiry on what Facebook’s founder was doing to stop incessant Candy Crush requests.
Sure, these questions did their part in distracting from the Internet.org hard sell, but they did little to mask the apparent agenda of Zuckerberg’s first town hall in India.
At least, he was honest about it. More or less.