If you've been following Facebook for a while, you know that it does not often lose. Not to competitors, not to regulators, not to stock market naysayers. The company has made a habit of mobilizing its billion-plus user base and capitalizing on its utility-like status as the world's dominant communication platform to steamroll any entity, public or private, that gets in its way.
But today, Indian telecom regulators handed Facebook a rare loss by effectively banning "Free Basics," a Facebook-led program that would have allowed Indian users to access a suite of mobile internet services, including Facebook, without it counting against their data plans.
You can read more about Free Basics in BuzzFeed or Backchannel's excellent coverage. But suffice it to say that the fight over Free Basics did not go the way Facebook intended. Indian activists, suspicious of Facebook's plans to use the program to establish a larger foothold in the country while disadvantaging rivals like Google and Twitter (whose apps wouldn't appear on Free Basics), accused Facebook of violating net neutrality by favoring certain apps and services over others.
In response, Facebook mounted an aggressive counter-campaign that culminated in a December op-ed by Mark Zuckerberg in the Times of India, in which the CEO compared Free Basics to a public library and asked, "Who could possibly be against this?"
Faux-naïve posturing aside, Zuckerberg had to have known that Free Basics would be controversial in India, where more than a billion people still have no access to the internet, and where Facebook's corporate self-interest in providing free internet access was so plainly evident.
As the fight against Free Basics picked up steam, Zuckerberg jumped into the fray personally, and the battle took on an incendiary tone. As Lauren Smiley wrote in Backchannel:
Zuckerberg has phoned key critics within India’s startup scene, and Facebook reps have been lobbying stakeholders in the capital of Delhi. Facebook paints opponents as elite scrooges stuck on “extreme” net neutrality principles, “even,” as Zuckerberg’s op-ed reads, “if it means leaving a billion people behind.” In December, Facebook launched a petition on the social network itself, asking users to support “digital equality,” the signatures of which were forwarded to regulators.
Zuckerberg's lobbying efforts extended to his personal Facebook account, where he posted in support of an initiative by India’s Ministry of Women & Child Development, wished Indians a happy Republic Day, and gushed, "I’m grateful that I’ve been able to visit India many times and experience the spirit and diversity of the world’s largest democracy." (Today, after the Indian regulatory ruling came down, he posted a more sanguine note saying that "While we're disappointed with today's decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world." Facebook also released a statement saying, "While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the internet and the opportunities it brings.")
Zuckerberg's interest in Indian culture and politics may well have extended beyond his narrow focus on the Free Basics fight. But it will be intriguing to see if his enthusiasm wanes, now that the country has rebuffed Facebook's offer.
More broadly, India's cold shoulder to Facebook may be a bad omen for the rest of the company's emerging markets strategy. If a group of activists could successfully reframe Free Basics as an insidious land grab, rather than an act of corporate largesse, and mobilize a country against it, what's to stop them from resisting elsewhere?