Forget the big billion fiasco, Flipkart's net neutrality stand is a whole new level of social media fail


As India's Internet unites to save Net neutrality in response to Airtel's Zero platform, Flipkart and its CEO Sachin Bansal unfortunately found themselves on the wrong side of the fence. The social media response to a statement by Bansal that he didn't see the problem with net neutrality has created a social media disaster for the company, that seems to have trumped even the 'big billion day sale' fiasco, that prompted it to send a very apologetic public email.

Flipkart retweeted three tweets by Bansal, arguing that the outrage against Airtel was hypocritical, because similar initiatives by 'foreign companies' were termed 'innovation', in what seemed to be a reference to Facebook introducing Internet.org to India in collaboration with Reliance, which in truth, isn't really that different to what Airtel is proposing.

But Bansal's timing and his three part defence on Twitter didn't find any takers. While he may have a point in comparing Airtel's zero platform to Internet.org, his stance seems to be "well, if Facebook is doing it, why not Airtel". This completely missed the point that both initiatives essentially allow ISP's to direct net traffic to their benefit. His argument that 'choice always wins' and that such an initiative could not be sustained for an unlimited time also falls flat.

If ISP's only allow traffic to certain sites or apps, there is firstly, nothing to stop them from charging companies to enable free or faster access to their sites, which will make the initiative sustainable in the long run. Secondly, it paves the way for the creation of monopolies that threaten smaller startups and sites.

Soon however, both Flipkart and Bansal learnt a quick lesson in what it meant to get on the wrong side of the Twitter mob.

A tweet by journalist Shiv Aroor that he was going to boycott the e-commerce site until they embraced net neutrality got retweeted almost 500 times and paved the way for a flood of tweets by users, all declaring that they were boycotting Flipkart and had uninstalled the app from their phones.

Users went even further. There has been a sustained campaign on both Android and iOS to downvote the app to a one star rating and mention the company's stance on net neutrality as the reason. At the time of writing, this did not seem to have affected them much on the Google Play store where they still had a rating of 4.2. On iOS however, they only had three stars.

In its tweets following the outrage, Flipkart has stuck to tweeting out business as usual and has played no further part in the net neutrality debate. Perhaps they're hoping it will all blow over. And right now it's true that the Internet has bigger things to worry about. Like trying to stop Airtel.

The Times of India reported that "in a span of 24 hours, over 27,000 emails have been sent to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India through the website savetheinternet.in, responding to the regulator's call for public consultation."

Additionally, TOI said that "an online petition on change.org has nearly 150,000 supporters petitioning Union minister for communication and information technology , Ravi Shankar Prasad, the department of telecom, and Trai to act against the violation of internet neutrality by corporate interests."

But Twitter and indeed all social media has an inconveniently long memory. Even if Flipkart is not targeted as much in the coming days, you can bet on the fact that it's going to be brought up at inopportune moments, most likely when the company is trying to launch a new product or initiative.

Airtel has meanwhile come out with an official clarification, in an effort to firefight all the outrage. They insist that the outrage is all based on ignorance and is being championed by people who have no idea what net neutrality is:

“In the end, the debate over the past few days has brought out one thing clearly – a large number of people are still not clear on what Net Neutrality is all about. This gives an opportunity to the so called experts to make various as well as baseless arguments. While their point of view is important, we should have a more informed and nuanced debate without painting a picture that is based on rhetoric rather than reason,”

"There is also a high level of misinformation surrounding the product, which is not surprising since the very concept of Net Neutrality is a bit misunderstood.” The statement claimed “over 150 start-ups – with majority being small start-ups – have contacted to enquire about the product. For the record, every one of them told us what a great platform we will be providing to them and for a change they will have an “equal opportunity” to run with the big boys”.

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