30 September 2015

‘We want everyone to be on the Internet’

September 29, 2015

Reuters"We need to ensure a regulatory framework that enables Net neutrality protections and the ability to work on new models for access," Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Facebook founder-CEO Mark Zuckerberg says it is most important for India to get the Net neutrality debate right, as it has the most number of unconnected people

Interacting with a select group of journalists, including Srinivasan Ramani of The Hindu, who were invited to the headquarters of Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his senior colleagues fielded questions on Net neutrality, content regulation and perceptions about Facebook

Srinivasan RamaniFacebook is increasingly becoming not just a social media platform for interaction and discussion of issues related to the public sphere, but also a platform for traditional media to 'break' news. There is the worry in India though that social media is relatively unfiltered as a medium and is used by anti-social elements to spread rumours that could create a law and order issue. The government in India complains that the response time of social media companies is not good enough to prevent the spread of false information and that’s why they have to take steps such as shutting down the Internet to halt these. How would you respond to this reasoning from law enforcement agencies?

We don’t want any terrorist content on Facebook. We spend a lot of investment in building tools on Facebook so that people report on harmful content. There is too much content for us every day to police it ourselves, but what we do is that we invest in tools that allow people to mark content that they think is important. There is a big team of community operations people who look into all that content that is flagged. We also work very closely with law enforcement [agencies] around the world to respond to what we think are legal requests that fit within the constitutional laws of the different countries.

There is always more that we can do here. Every time someone sees content that is inappropriate, we have to do better, but when you have a community of 1.5 billion people, we have to put a lot of investment to ensure that people don’t post content related to violence and terrorism and that’s what we are trying to do.

Facebook Policy Representative adds: We have a very close relationship with various law enforcement agencies and we do a lot with government. Part of the challenge in India is that there are so many different parties. We want to work more with government parties so that they can be more consistent. Different parts of government are taking different decisions themselves. So it is difficult for us to know what government agencies want. This is not just an India issue. It is a global issue. We are doing better today than before and I am sure we will do even better in the future.

In places like India, Facebook is going to those devices which traditional Internet cannot reach. You are available on a $50 device on which you cannot generally open a web-app. With respect to the plans on Internet.org, do you see yourself as the parallel Internet or as being parallel to the Internet?

No. Not at all. We want to spread the Internet. The whole Internet. To do that, we are doing a lot of things as part of Internet.org to reach people. We are working on new technology — unmanned solar power aircrafts that will beam down access; we are working on satellites, on laser communication systems that will beam down Internet and high bandwidth. New business models — the Free Basics programme that we rolled out recently in 20 countries across the world, including with Reliance in some areas of India — Free Basics is an open programme so any developer can build for it and any operator can launch it. In the coming months, we will be able to roll out widely across India and other countries as well.

But even beyond that, there are things that we need to do in order for Facebook to be a good experience on different networks. Not everyone has 4G or 3G. Many only have 2G where the connection speed is less. So we have launched Facebook Lite which is a service that consumes way less data, so that if you have a slower net connection, you can still get access. Most Internet services are not reaching a 1.5 billion people. The reality is that most companies building Internet services aren’t reaching a set of people. So, we can use mainstream technology that is widely deployed to reach out to a few hundred million people. But if we want to connect everyone, we have to look for the people in the fringes and we have to able to serve those with the weakest connections — living in rural villages, lacking traditional infrastructure (which is not economical for them). To reach them, we might need to try things like flying down planes that can beam down access. You should look at what we are doing as a part of a very wide commitment to do all of those things necessary to get out to those folks.

New technology, new business models [Free Basics], building apps to work on lower bandwidth. These are things that we are working on.

There are a lot of larger issues being debated in India related to Net neutrality, Internet governance and cyber security. How are these issues affecting the way your are thinking on how the future of Facebook would be and how are they influencing you? Today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about what he expects Facebook (and other companies) to do. What do you expect countries like India in terms of policy to do, the one thing to do, to get it right?

With regard to spreading access and Net neutrality, a lot of countries are putting regulations on how to work on these things [like net neutrality]. Like the U.S. did it, and did a good job in coming up with a good Net neutrality regulations and also different things that spread connectivity; different business models are completely separate from that. There is a big debate — an incredible debate in India — as to how to balance these two things. India is the country with the most unconnected people (about a billion out of the 1.25 billion). We know that for about 10 people who are connected to the Internet, about one person gets a new job and one person gets lifted out of poverty. So, getting access to the Internet is a national, even a global, issue. It’s a priority to ensure connectivity in India. Probably one of the problems that can be solved — as in snapping a finger to resolving a massive problem like the poverty issue… This is probably one of the big things you could do.

We here also believe in Net neutrality very strongly. So if someone wants to access some service and the operator wants to charge more money to do so, then that’s bad and it isn’t a fair thing and it is a big issue. But at the same time, when you have a student in a classroom looking up for information for free to do her homework, it is hard to see why there is an issue with that. We need to ensure a regulatory framework that enables both of these things — Net neutrality protections and the ability to work on new models for access. One model that I think is widely used across the world is that of price discrimination laws. It is not necessarily legal to be able to send the same two things — let’s say, men have to pay two dollars, and women only one dollar. Laws everywhere say that this is not good. But at the same time, no one says if you want to get an apple and give it to a food bank for free, that is wrong. We need to make sure to get the debate right. India is the most important country to get this debate right, as it is the country with the most unconnected people and would benefit the world the most by connecting those people.

Is the noise that is coming through on Net neutrality affecting the way you are planning to address the access issue in terms of product development?

Yes. We could roll out Free Basics all over the world (which we have done in 20 countries), but if we don’t get the debate right in India and the balance is not struck correctly, that could hold the whole world back, in my opinion.

“How many Ramanujans are there who don’t even have access to the book and if you give them access to the Internet, would they not be able to make great contributions to the world?”One story that inspires us is the story of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. He is a brilliant guy who did not have the best formal education. But he had one math textbook and that was enough for him to basically recreate all of modern mathematics. The question that we have to ask ourselves is what would have happened if he had access to the whole Internet? How many Ramanujans are there who don’t even have access to the book and if you give them access to the Internet, would they not be able to make their own lives but also make great contributions to the world overall? That’s why it is important to get this debate right in India, not just for India but very importantly and for the whole world.

Chris Daniels of Internet.org: The very specific changes we have made in response to the discussion in India and throughout the world — we made the name change so that there is no confusion that this is about very free basics and not the whole Internet; we changed the privacy policy, security methodology and we opened up the platform so that it is open for all developers and it has always been open for all operators. We are a company that goes, tests, learns and takes feedback from the entire community. The good news is that the programme is working. We see that the rate of coming online has increased and people very quickly move on to the entire Internet once you show them what the Internet is about. We do take the feedback.

As Facebook is growing bigger and better, there is lot of contradictory opinion about the company in the market. How would you answer your critics?

I think, to some extent, almost all companies which are successful face the issues that you talk about. The funny thing is that there is this mentality that we are a large company. But from our perspective, we are still small, in terms of the impact and the “connect” that we seek to make in the world. Going back to when I got started with Facebook... I used to do my computer science problem sets with a friend of mine, who is now with Facebook ... and right after we launched the first version in the Harvard school community, we went out for pizza one night. We talked about how the future of technology was going to do. We were not quite talking about ourselves when we sought to think of the future of technology. We always thought some other company was going to do this task of connecting the world as it may.

There were companies like Google, Microsoft which had thousands of employees and we expected them to do it. Looking back at ten years ago, the reason why we set out to do what we did, in terms of connecting people, was that we cared about it. There were other companies that had these opportunities to build “social media” but they didn’t. Even though we were college students, we went ahead and did it. We want to keep that mentality alive even today.

Now the next frontier is to get everyone in the world on the Internet. We cannot fulfil this mission of connecting everyone in the world without bringing them to the Internet. We just view that we must go and do it. There are also other companies — mobile/ telecom companies etc., which are also doing these things. The reason we are pressing on this issue of Internet connectivity is that we care. Just like when we were college students building social media for the world even though we were just kids, today we just care about what we want to do for the world. We may seem like a big company but that is not the mindset we have. We know that there are other companies that have the resources to do what needs to be done on Internet connectivity but we want to do that too.

Are you making investments on personal front as part of philanthropy in India to further the cause of Internet for all?

Yes, absolutely. I have been fortunate to create wealth through Facebook and I realise that it is my responsibility to give it back to the society. I have travelled in villages of India so you will hear about some of these initiatives soon.


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