Facebook ‘colonialism' row stokes distrust in Zuckerberg

  • 11 February 2016
  • From the section Technology
  • comments
Mark Zuckerberg Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mark Zuckerberg has said he is disappointed the Free Basics service was banned in India

Mark Zuckerberg has moved quickly to put a digital bargepole between himself and one of Facebook's influential and well-regarded board members.

He was attempting to limit the damage caused by a tweet that could have far-reaching consequences as he continues to expand Facebook around the world.

When Marc Andreessen dismissed India's decision to block Facebook's "free" mobile internet scheme as "anti-colonialism", he stoked the fears of those who believe Zuckerberg's stated philanthropic ambitions are actually a front for his desire to dominate the internet in the developing world.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption Mr Andreessen deleted this tweet after it caused controversy

"I found the comments deeply upsetting," Zuckerberg wrote on Tuesday, as uproar grew.

"They do not represent the way Facebook or I think at all."

Andreessen, an early Facebook investor, has apologised - and deleted his tweet.

Why?

It's damaging because it hits right to heart of what is a perennial problem for Facebook: trust.

In the developed world, every privacy policy change and feature addition is met with fierce investigation.

And that's because people want to know why? Why, for instance, does Facebook use face-recognition software on our photos? Why does Facebook insist we use our real names?

The answer - to help us organise our digital and real lives - is only partially satisfactory to some.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Marc Andreessen said he would no longer comment on Indian politics

That may be so, users say, but... why else?

In the developing world this suspicion is more fraught.

Of the world's top 100 billionaires, Zuckerberg currently comes in at number eight. Much of Facebook's value, and therefore his, is down to the phenomenal growth the network has enjoyed since its launch in 2004.

This needs to continue, but with more than half of the entire online world already using Facebook, it needs to expand deeper into emerging economies.

It's why Zuckerberg spent $22bn (£15.2bn) to buy messaging service Whatsapp. It's likely why he has wooed China by going to great lengths to learn Mandarin.

And it's why he gave up his trademark hoody and jeans to instead wear a suit to welcome the Indian Prime Minister to Facebook's campus last year.

If he was going to be accepted in India, he needed to build bridges and gain trust.

And it's why Marc Andreessen's comment, as a member of Facebook's board, is so damaging - it's put Zuckerberg once again on the back foot.

Digital colonials

Because colonialism, albeit digital, is precisely what some in India were afraid of.

The suggestion by Andreessen that India, with its history, should somehow be pro-colonialism was treated by many as absurd.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption As well as India, Facebook wants to bring internet connectivity to hard-to-reach parts of Africa

In centuries gone by, colonialism was about exploitation of resources. In the modern world, it's digital - moving in, setting up companies and building insurmountable user bases before any other company can.

That's arguably an extreme interpretation of the purpose of Free Basics - but it's the argument made by local businesses to India's telecoms regulator.

An Indian social network wouldn't stand a chance against free Facebook, they said, and websites that are not part of the Free Basics scheme would lose out. The regulator agreed when it ruled in favour of net neutrality.

As did many Western onlookers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which campaigns for an open internet, said Facebook was doing what it could to open up the Free Basics scheme to local companies, the inherent flaw of the programme was that Facebook remained the sole gatekeeper.

After Free Basics was banned, Zuckerberg said he was "disappointed" but wouldn't give up.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption Mr Andreessen has apologised for his "ill-advised" comments

There's no suggestion Andreessen's comments represented anything other than his own, loosely tweeted thoughts. But these weren't the words of a random member of staff - he's on the board, and has influence.

"Facebook stands for helping to connect people and giving them voice to shape their own future," Zuckerberg wrote on Wednesday.

Do people trust him? After this week, perhaps fewer will.

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC and on Facebook

More on this story