Close on the heels of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, social media pioneer Mark Zuckerberg visited the world’s most promising internet market. He was in India to address Internet.org, the industry initiative to promote affordable mass connectivity, which he called a “human right”. Other motives included meeting the prime minister and plugging Facebook into Digital India. India has Facebook’s fastest-growing user base and Zuckerberg is following on from the earlier visit of his chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.
There can be synergy between social media and Indian government initiatives. For instance, Facebook/ Internet.org’s innovations lab in Menlo Park has a test-bench for app performance on unreliable networks, like in rural India. But the dream of connecting every rural computer by fibre, which Zuckerberg offers to support with high-altitude drones, is made redundant by cheap Android smartphones and the imminent deployment of fast mobile internet. Streaming visual media to phones, including news and education, this would also narrow the intractable digital divide caused by illiteracy. The multilingual internet publishing that Zuckerberg wants to promote is no longer a technological challenge, and quality content is available in volumes. Earlier, in a CNN exclusive, Zuckerberg had said that “here” (in the US), people used the internet to connect with friends, while “there, they would decide what sort of government they want, or get access to healthcare for the first time”. This is techno-utopianism in the grand tradition of Nicholas Negroponte, holistic healing by TCP/ IP. Besides, there is no “here” or “there” on the Net, only a seamless “everywhere”. Location denies the basic nature and the strength of the medium.
And yet, a collaboration with Facebook should be attempted, if only to probe uncharted territory. However, a journey without maps, based only on mutual admiration and fuzzy warmth, could founder. Government’s relations with large data transnationals must be carefully structured, because size matters. As former UK foreign secretary David Miliband observed, Facebook raised $19 billion to complete its $22 billion buyout of WhatsApp last week, more than the world’s annual humanitarian spending. Apple is richer than all African countries except South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt. In South Asia, only India and Pakistan are better off than it. Besides, data on social networks interact in novel ways which impact politics and society, to the extent of triggering revolution. Government should certainly engage with social media to accelerate development, but partnering to promote its initiatives may be unnecessary. Simply using social media would be sufficient, and without the risk of future shock.