Mark Zuckerberg held his latest Townhall Q&A Session at IIT Delhi on 28th October, where he addressed a host of issues, ranging from Net Neutrality to providing Internet access for the poor. A large portion of his Q&A focussed on the importance of connecting over a billion people in India who still don’t have access to the Internet. I was lucky enough to be one of the 900 students who got to witness him live. Though it was certainly an experience to remember, it wasn’t difficult to see Zuckerberg’s extensive attempts at changing our impression of Internet.org.
According to Zuckerberg, Townhall Q&As are a great way to engage with his community of users, especially so in India, which has Facebook’s second largest user base. He added that research has shown that for every 10 people who get access to the Internet, one job is created, and one person gets lifted out of poverty.
Out of the series of questions he addressed was the problem of connecting billions of people who still don’t have access to the Internet. As expected (and I wasn’t surprised), was Zuckerberg’s answer – Facebook’s highly controversial initiative, Internet.org (recently renamed Free Basics) is the solution, which has connected over 15 million people who earlier had no net access and will continue to do so in the future if it succeeds. Even more important than the lack of availability and affordability, was lack of awareness about the internet, according to him. This is where Internet.org “comes in”. By providing free basic services like Wikipedia, job listings, educational info and so on, Zuckerberg has a grand plan to get people connected to the Internet in the future.
When asked about the next evident topic, ‘net neutrality’, he spoke out wholeheartedly in support of it, while also taking a swipe at the critics of his initiative. “Do I support Net Neutrality? Absolutely!” he said. He lauded Facebook’s extensive efforts in lobbying for legislation that incorporated this basic principle. He also added that the European Union and USA have recently released regulations that are very clear about this subject. Free access to basic services do not violate even these very stringent regulations, he added. Basic services which are changing the lives of people and bringing people out of poverty cannot be detrimental to the society. He took a veiled dig at this critics by adding that most of the people criticising his initiative were those who had access to the Internet. The people who aren’t connected are those who need to be heard. Internet.org or Free Basics does not differentiate between any organisation as long as the services conform to some basic regulations. “If a zero rated product can help a fisherman sell his fish online and provide for his family, what is wrong in that?”
Apart from extensive (and after a while repetitive) discussion of internet.org, he also touched upon many other topics while answering questions from the audience. One of the questions was about the elements that constituted a successful startup. “Every good company started with people who cared about something. You shouldn’t start a company without knowing what you want“, he said. He encouraged the audience to be resilient and work on any idea that they think can change the world. He never knew that Facebook was going to reach such heights of success. When asked whether he made any mistakes while building the company, he admitted that he had made every kind of mistake imaginable. “If you do something good, you will get the strength to power through a lot of mistakes,” he said. The reason why Facebook is so successful today is because it is helping people with something very important in their lives, which is staying connected. But he also expressed his regret at how the media conveniently ignored the contribution of people like Sheryl Sandberg, who had an equal hand into making the company into what it is today. He believes that he isn’t the ‘sole representative’ of Facebook.
Mark also promoted (basically ‘touched upon’) some other social initiatives that Facebook has taken, like building schools in countries that need them the most. He gave an example of how Facebook was helping find missing children through its new initiative ‘Amber Alert’, which puts the photograph of missing children on their news feed. Any new info gathered on these children is routed to the local police. In the future, he saw Facebook as the Internet and the Internet as Facebook.
A large part of his answers centered on only Facebook’s social initiatives and its attempt to improve peoples’ lives. Many of the pre selected questions also centred on that fact. (Yes, the questions were carefully curated and selected by Mark and the team at IIT Delhi organizing the event, though some questions were allowed on the spot). Surprisingly, the most popular question during the talk was how to stop receiving Candy Crush requests, and that’s what the media channels covering the event also took away as the most important ‘feature’ of the Q&A.
The question that begs to be asked is: Do the people who need connectivity deserve to get a stripped down ‘Internet’ that Facebook regulates, or the real one that is unregulated?