On 26 September 2006, Facebook, founded by a 22-year-old Harvard University dropout, blinked to life in India.
Three months prior to the social media platform’s arrival in India, Reliance Industries Limited Chairman & Managing Director, Mukesh Ambani, addressed the company’s shareholders at the 32nd annual general meeting, in June 2006.
“Several sectors in India are on the threshold of expansive growth,” he said at the meeting. While “organised retailing” was identified as one of the promising sectors, the words “digital”, “online” or “data’” found no mention that year.
Fourteen years later, India is Facebook’s largest market and Reliance is India’s largest internet service provider, with over 380 million users.
A majority of India’s 350 million Facebook users and 400 million on WhatsApp are possibly accessing the services via India’s largest internet service provider – Reliance’s Jio.
In fourteen years, oil has fallen to below $0 a barrel (temporarily, because of the COVID-19 pandemic) and been replaced by a “new oil” – data. Facebook, eager to expand to digital payments and e-commerce, has now acquired a 9.99 percent stake in Reliance Jio’s platforms for $5.7 billion.
Between going online in India and investing the largest FDI ever in India’s technology sector, Facebook’s journey in the country has been a tumultuous one.
From transforming the way the country communicates to a zero-rating fiasco, major data and privacy breaches, serious misinformation controversies as well as litigations across the the breadth of India. Here’s a look at Facebook’s 14-year timeline and its tryst with India.
2006-14: The Early Years
Facebook opened its first India office in 2010, four years after it went online. It had managed to onboard 15 million Indians onto its platform by then.
That same year, WhatsApp, a personal messaging app founded by two ex-Yahoo employees, and a niche image sharing company, Instagram, also launched in India.
Facebook’s first office, based out of Hyderabad, had Kirthiga Reddy as Director of Online Operations & Head of India Office, and Manoj Varghese as Director of User Operations.
By 2012, Facebook had crossed a billion users and grown rapidly in India to 65 million. By the end of 2014, Mark Zuckerberg’s company had crossed the 100 million user milestone.
The year 2014 witnessed yet another milestone – Zuckerberg’s company had snapped up WhatsApp and looked unstoppable in India.
2015-16: Free Basics & The First Failure
As Facebook raced past the first billion milestone, a question loomed: Where are the next billion users going to come from?
As Zuckerberg turned 30 and his company a decade old, he was yet to have felt humbled by any significant setbacks. The roller-coaster had mostly moved upwards.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his trip to the United States in 2015, also visited Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters in California. A month later, Zuckerberg landed in India.
Zuckerberg had set his sights firmly on India, a market that had illustrated a tremendous appetite for his offerings. He announced that he was going to connect the unconnected poor people of India through ‘Free Basics’, a stripped-down basic internet service including Facebook.
The Center for Internet & Society had noted, “Free Basics clearly runs against the idea of net neutrality by offering access to some sites and not others.”
“This means that Free Basics is able to read all data passing through the platform. The same rules don’t apply to Facebook itself, ensuring that it can be the only social network, and (Facebook-owned) WhatsApp the only messaging service, provided,” CIS had explained.
On 8 February 2016, following sustained civil society and public pressure, TRAI made the, "Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016".
The honeymoon was over. The roller-coaster made a swift run downwards.
These regulations effectively prohibited zero-rated services, such as Facebook's Free Basics, thereby safeguarding an open internet infrastructure.
2014 Onwards: Fake News
Misinformation – perhaps the most damaging issue that Facebook, as an entity, has struggled to rid itself of.
While the social media platform has weathered heavy criticism for abetting misinformation and hate speech, the brunt of the attack has been on WhatsApp.
The unmitigated rise of fake news via WhatsApp and Facebook stripped the social media giant of its halo and emerged as a problem that the $72 billion tech giant had no immediate answers to.
The phrase ‘WhatsApp University’ has since emerged as a euphemism for misinformation peddling forwarded messages. However, what was initially felt as an annoyance devolved into danger as India witnessed a spate of lynchings in 2018 across several states – from Tripura to Tamil Nadu – which were directly connected to fake forwarded messages.
In July 2018, WhatsApp moved swiftly to control the damage and took steps like limiting the number of users a message can be forwarded to to five. Facebook, meanwhile, started a project of collaborating with fact checkers.
It even worked alongside the Election Commission of India during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to counter the menace of misinformation, by political parties and candidates.
The spectacular surge of fake news has even led to the emergence of fact-checking verticals and organisations.
2018: Cambridge Analytica
Cambridge Analytica was perhaps the biggest data breach scandal to hit the social media giant and one that was intricately linked to the alleged interference into the 2016 US presidential elections.
Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of millions of people's Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political advertising.
Facebook admitted that personal data of 5 lakh Indians had been compromised and a whistleblower had claimed that several political parties had enlisted the help of its parent company, SCL, to help them with state and general elections.
Zuckerberg had appeared before US Congress in 2018 and 2019 and testified on a range of issues in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Senators had grilled him regarding Facebook’s monopoly as well as expressed concern about the fact that the company can regulate itself.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister of electronics and IT, had delivered a similar message to Facebook through a stern warning in March that, “Abuse of social media, that too by using foreign firms, will not be acceptable.”
Prasad also told Rajya Sabha that the Cambridge Analytica data breach case will be investigated by the CBI.
2019: Pegasus Spyware Scandal
The WhatsApp-Pegasus controversy in October 2019 was, perhaps, the biggest privacy-breach scandal since the Cambridge Analytica news broke in April 2018.
At least 121 Indians were among the 1,400-odd individuals who are confirmed to have been targeted globally by the spyware and surveilled. Names in the list include Anand Teltumbde, Bela Bhatia and other human rights activists, lawyers and journalists.
WhatsApp subsequently sued the Israeli spyware developer NSO Group for using its spyware, Pegasus, to exploit a vulnerability in WhatsApp that allowed attackers to plant it in users’ phones just by ringing the target’s device.
WhatsApp dubbed it a “cyber attack”, changing its earlier statement in which it had called it a “security issue.”
2019-20: WhatsApp Pay
Facebook’s ambitious digital payments operations in India, one of the fastest growing markets, has been a frustrated and staggered experience at best.
According to an Assocham-PWC India study, digital payments in India will more than double to $135.2 billion in 2023 from $64.8 billion in 2019.
Facebook sure wants a share of the pie.
However, WhatsApp Pay has remained stuck owing to the Reserve Bank of India’s demand to store data locally, and has not gone far beyond the beta testing it did with nearly one million users last year.
In November 2019, the RBI had told the Supreme Court that it would not allow a full-scale launch of WhatsApp Pay on the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) until it complies with the data localisation norms.
In February 2020, however, the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) gave its nod to WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook for launching the payments feature in India in a phased manner. The company has indicated that it is willing to comply with RBI’s requirements of storing data within India.
2020: Jio-Facebook Deal
Wednesday, 22 April, in some ways, appeared to be the second coming of Facebook in India.
Reliance Jio and Facebook announced their mega deal worth Rs 43,574 crore ,where Mark Zuckerberg’s company picked up a 9.99 percent stake in Jio platforms. The strategic partnership, according to industry analysts, is aimed as operationalising e-commerce and digital payments services.
Among the most significant aspects of the Reliance Jio-Facebook deal is not that Jio will now do big business with platforms like Facebook or Instagram. Jio's biggest collaboration will be with WhatsApp.
The ‘Mark-Mukesh’ deal yet again underscored WhatsApp’s authority in India. Be it fake news, Pegasus spyware or even annoying ‘good morning’ messages, the personal messaging platform has long emerged from the shadows of Facebook and stands as an intrinsic part of the popular Indian consciousness.
How the roller coaster ride in Facebook’s most important market proceeds in a post-COVID-19 world remains to be seen. Watch this space.