How Facebook lost the Free Basics battle before it even began

Never mind the dazzle of the campaign, Facebook lost the battle even before a single ad appeared. The opposite camp of net neutrality activists had sealed its victory by the simple act of generating public awareness around the issue of net neutrality. To understand why, we need to start from the battle’s genesis.


By Rishi Seth

TRAI’s decision to ban the differential pricing of data has stopped Free Basics in its tracks for now. Facebook's aggressive, if controversial campaign to save Free Basics in India has come to naught. The company spent an estimated Rs. 300 crore on a fully kitted campaign: roadside hoardings, full-page newspaper ads and TV commercials featuring Mark Zuckerberg himself implored Indians to vote for Free Basics. This campaign is also probably the most expensive self-goal scored by any corporation ever.

Never mind the dazzle of the campaign, Facebook lost the battle even before a single ad appeared. The opposite camp of net neutrality activists had sealed its victory by the simple act of generating public awareness around the issue of net neutrality. To understand why, we need to start from the battle’s genesis.

Free Basics, or Internet.org as it was called before, was conceived as a strategic business initiative for Facebook. Its global propagation and acceptance was and still remains critical to Facebook’s business interests. India is one of the biggest potential markets for Facebook and Free Basics, if not the biggest. To get all necessary regulatory approvals for Free Basics in India was therefore a battle Facebook had to win at any cost.

Now, securing favorable policy decisions or regulatory approvals for any business is an established game with well-defined rules. This game is often played discreetly and under the radar of public eyes, whenever a corporation has interests that are not completely aligned to the larger public interest. The rationale is simple; even a glimmer of spotlight on the issue runs the risk of exposing the chasm between the corporation’s interests and the larger public interest, which in turn makes getting a favorable policy decision much harder.

Had the Indian regulatory battle played out as per Facebook’s plan, the corporation would have discreetly lobbied TRAI and other policy influencers (including the  top echelons of Indian government), made allowance for due process to be followed quietly (through a consultation paper) and ultimately would have secured the approval for Free Basics.

Except, the due process was far from quiet in this case. In March 2015, TRAI came out with its first consultation paper on the regulatory framework for Over-the-Top (OTT) services. Within a few days, the net neutrality activists launched SaveTheInternet campaign, which would quickly become a massive and pan-India online movement. Among its other achievements, the SavetheInternet campaign rallied support from a motley crew of artists, journalists, lawyers and opinion makers. Its single biggest achievement however was in bringing the convoluted topic of net neutrality and the ongoing regulatory process around it into the public limelight.

Once the established game was thus disrupted, Facebook was ill prepared to continue with its play. This lack of preparation showed in every subsequent move that followed from the corporation. Facebook strategically blundered in escalating the regulatory process to a battle of public opinion. The regulator’s job is to recommend a policy that creates a level playing ground for all stakeholders after hearing the nuanced viewpoints of the stakeholders. If public opinion alone could decide policy, income tax would have been long abolished, petrol would sell at half the price and India would have bombed the terrorist camps in neighboring countries.

The Rs. 300 crore Free Basics campaign was a shot in the arm for net neutrality activists as it only managed to bring an even widespread public attention to what could have been a low-profile regulatory process. TRAI was no doubt acutely aware of the unprecedented public gaze upon them. This is not the kind of limelight most regulators are used to. More worryingly, this campaign also betrayed a shocking lack of understanding of the regulatory process that Facebook was keen to influence – as evidenced by the recent letters TRAI wrote to the corporation.

Facebook made other tactical mistakes along the way. The brilliant idea to frame Free Basics as ‘free Internet for poor’ (after all, who doesn’t love free Internet) failed to consider the presence of a skeptical media that saw through the ‘free’ part and called it out. Yet another campaign to vilify the net neutrality activists as elites or ‘Internet ayatollahs’ with no concern for the data-deprived poor ran aground when people with the stature of Lok Sabha MP BJ Panda and former UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani, along with over 80 professors from IITs and IISC raised their voices against Free Basics.

In the final analysis, the Free Basics campaign will go down a masterclass in how not to conduct lobbying and public relations. The only consolation Facebook can draw is that its win-at-all-costs battle was lost before it even began fighting, and by factors completely outside its control – a well-executed awareness campaign by the net neutrality activists.

The author is a communications and marketing consultant.

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