Lessons from Facebook’s Free Basics fumble in India

The plan to offer free services was compared to colonialism by its critics

Free Basics was presented as philanthropy but could be perceived as simply an attempt to secure customers. photograph: dado ruvic/reuters Free Basics was presented as philanthropy but could be perceived as simply an attempt to secure customers.  Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Free Basics was presented as philanthropy but could be perceived as simply an attempt to secure customers. photograph: dado ruvic/reuters Free Basics was presented as philanthropy but could be perceived as simply an attempt to secure customers. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

 

On February 10th, Facebook board member Marc Andreessen sent out a tweet: “I now withdraw from all future discussions of Indian economics and politics, and leave them to people with more knowledge and experience!”

How did Andreessen arrive at such a moment? His Twitter fumble was, in fact, part of an important week for Facebook, India and the debate over internet access in emerging markets. It started when news broke that India’s telecom regulator had decided against allowing Facebook’s Free Basics service, arguing that it would make it hard for smaller providers to compete and that the service violated basic principles of “net neutrality”, which is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated the same. The Facebook service was designed to offer free access to a select set of websites to those without internet access – but Free Basics had been equated to colonialism by its many critics. Andreessen’s part began when he sent out a very ill-advised series of tweets, including one that read: “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?” Not surprisingly, a firestorm of criticism followed.

Andreessen’s misguided actions are a lesson for innovators preparing to win over the next billion users: more than just coding intelligence, you need “contextual” intelligence; the complex histories, economic disparities, politics and sociocultural mindsets in the developing world shape success just as much as the product does.

Here are a few things to remember:

nContext is just as important as code Companies will have to do more to embed themselves with these future users and understand their day-to-day lives, including their biggest hopes and fears, along with their history and culture. Simply having admirable intentions won’t be enough to win support for your big idea in developing markets – even if you’re bringing the best code in the world.

nRegulators have to weigh both laws and emotions Digital players must contend with varying regulatory frameworks in every country. In India, for instance, regulations are an outcome of a mix of “rational” economic and legal argument, as well as the country’s history and political climate. Indians are particularly sensitive to Western companies that arrive to do business in seemingly innocuous ways – consider that the British East India Company arrived with good intentions of trading with India, which made way, eventually, for India’s colonisation. And despite being a country rife with economic inequality, egalitarianism is a concept that matters in India.

nMarketing messages must be consistent with the product When an initiative is presented in one way –

philanthropy, as was the case with Free Basics – and the service itself contained a “lite” version of Facebook and a selection of other sites, suggesting a different motivation (to secure profitable future customers), the tide of opinion can turn very quickly. Even if it’s more than one goal, communicate those things in ways that people can trust.

© 2016 Harvard Business School

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