Idea Exchange | Disproportionate energy on tech firms vs govt narrative. The conversation must happen but not framed as a daily debate: Ajit Mohan, MD, Facebook India

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August 01, 2021 5:30 AM

"The interesting part for me is that the frantic midnight calls that I get are not from the Government of India, they are invariably from a first-time entrepreneur who has not been able to use Facebook ads," Ajit Mohan said.

Ajit Mohan, Managing Director, Facebook IndiaAjit Mohan, Managing Director, Facebook India

Ajit Mohan, Managing Director, Facebook India talks about providing space to content creators beyond elite sections, says some of the changes at Apple will be harmful for small entrepreneurs, asserts Facebook will remain a free service, and says partnership with Jio will benefit kirana stores. The session was moderated by Principal Correspondent Aashish Aryan.

AASHISH ARYAN: When social media intermediaries say that they are just third-party platforms who have no role in controlling information, is it an attempt to escape responsibility?
Tech platforms more broadly, and social media in general, have a huge role to play in the world today, including in India. If you look at the evolution of these platforms over the last 14-15 years, these platforms have been… used by people at large to increasingly further businesses and the agenda of entrepreneurship. We have a few core principles that have guided the development of the Facebook app, Instagram and WhatsApp. We believe that we play a positive role in helping people connect to each other… If you look at the scale, if you look at the engagement, if you look at how deeply immersed each one of these platforms is in India, I think the reality is that we do play a role… So whether it is crafting our community standards, whether it is improving our ability to detect harmful content before it hits our platform, whether it’s hate speech or spam, or whether it is about raising the bar on privacy, I think we are deeply conscious of the responsibility that we have to limit the harm, to limit bad actors from using our platforms to further an agenda that is not good for society… It’s important to recognise the role these platforms play in our societies, especially in a democratic society like India, while equally recognising that we have the onus to keep raising the bar on improving the platform…

I think scrutiny is good; we benefit from scrutiny. I don’t think we expect a free pass… We have asked for regulation and rules that allow platforms like ours to operate with clarity about what expectation the society has… I think we have been quite vocal that we don’t want to have the power of determining that for ourselves… For example, what kind of content should be on a platform… We of course, have community guidelines and we adhere to local law.

AASHISH ARYAN: While you say that scrutiny is good, why then did Facebook approach the Supreme Court to quash the summons issued by the Delhi Assembly’s Committee on Peace and Harmony in connection with the 2020 Northeast Delhi riots, instead of appearing before the panel?
In the last year, I have been before the Standing Committee on IT twice. My colleagues have been there multiple times. So we do subject ourselves to scrutiny. We have been fairly open about answering questions. Having said that, the summons from the Delhi Assembly raised important questions on the separation of powers between Government of India and the Delhi government, and we thought it was important to get clarity on it. If you look at the Supreme Court judgment, it addressed a lot of issues including what can be covered and what cannot be covered. It was important for us to get clarity as a platform.

NANDAGOPAL RAJAN: The pause on the policy update on WhatsApp, is it because of pushback from government or because of pushback from users?
It was a response to concerns from the government. We continue to request users to update and agree to the new privacy policy, we continue to send reminders… Some of the plans that we had disclosed at the beginning of the year to limit the service for those who did not sign on, we have paused that. We are going to pause that till we get clarity on any privacy and data Bill that comes out of India. So it definitely was a response to concerns that were expressed by the government here.

NANDAGOPAL RAJAN: What’s happening with WhatsApp Pay?
WhatsApp Pay is live and by now it’s probably available to all users in India, if not a substantial number. But I understand the nature of the question that you are asking, which is that it has not been very visible. There were a lot of predictions that when WhatsApp Pay launches, no other service will thrive. I think we have seen that the reality is the reverse, that multiple payment services continue to thrive in what is an extraordinarily competitive market… There’s a lot of work happening behind the scenes for the development of payments on WhatsApp. Once we get to a stage where we feel comfortable about the product development, we will make more of an effort to have a lot more transactions and users.

PRANAV MUKUL: There’s a growing school of thought that like conventional news media, social media is also headed in a direction where it will be catering to specific sections soon. Do you see that happening?
…We have more than 3 billion users around the world, and more than 400 million people in India… At that number, it’s intuitively clear that you will have a lot of people with very diverse points of view. I think you are hinting at ideological leanings… I think there will always be different platforms that will try and cater to cohorts or audiences. Sometimes that audience may be very niche. Our objective is to make sure that there is space for expression by people who hold all kinds of views and ideology, so long as they are not violating the core principles that we articulate in our community guidelines and there is no violation of dignity of people who use the platform…and of course, within the parameters of local law. There is a vast canvas for free expression and there is space for everyone on our platforms.

PRANAV MUKUL: You have also been at Hotstar. Over the years, have you seen any changes in how content is being created in India?
…If you look at the last 10 years in India, there have been big positive shifts. Hotstar played a huge role in expanding the canvas for people to watch premium content in an unconstrained manner. They didn’t have to be tethered to a particular time on broadcast television. On the flip side, the appetite for curated high-quality storytelling has dramatically increased. I think the scene today looks very different from even five years ago, there’s so much investment and energy going into just the storytelling. It is agnostic to formats. There are movies, television shows, short and long series, daily soaps; it has exploded. So that’s looking good.

On Facebook and Instagram, we are seeing the emergence of entirely new formats, like Reels. We are seeing the emergence of exciting young creators telling great stories and building huge followership on the back of very short duration videos. One of the things that we keep talking about is how the Instagram team now looks at India to learn about what works, what doesn’t work, and how we can create a strong proposition for creators through our work in Reels here. Cricketers, film celebrities, public figures are using it, but in just a year we are starting to see creators who the people didn’t know about emerge and have global followership.

It’s enabling expression of a certain kind that may have been limited only to elite publishers five years ago. Given where the Internet has gone in India, many of these creators are coming from very small towns… We have barely scratched the surface of where this is headed next… Once these creators have massive followership… we are also thinking through on how they can leverage that followership to create revenue streams that are sustainable. For many, this is becoming their primary source of income or their only source of income. The canvas of opportunity is dramatically exploding. We think we are playing a huge role in democratising that for people who have a story to tell to reach a global audience with very little friction.

ANIL SASI: Facebook has perhaps been most vocal about Apple’s app tracking transparency update. Is there a danger of Facebook falling on the wrong side of the debate on antitrust and consumer choice, consumer data, etc?
No, not at all. I do believe we are on the right side of history. We have been vocal about the focus on privacy and also on the agenda of giving users greater control over their data… We have even started articulating points of view on data portability, making it easier for users to carry data from a platform like ours to a new platform that may emerge. We have started talking about giving users greater control over algorithmic choices. I do think there has been a bit of a gap between the public narrative on Facebook — the media narrative about Facebook — and some of the frameworks that we introduce. In the last two years, the extent to which privacy has become a big part of the design of every product and feature is dramatic. So, it’s not just that we are talking about it, we are actually doing it. At the same time, companies are at different places on this. In some ways, it’s also coming from their own business models, if I can put it respectfully. One of the choices that Facebook continues to make is that we believe our platforms should be free. Clearly, Apple is running on a very different business model. When you have a utility model of delivering a free service, obviously, the revenue stream to make all of this sustainable will be advertising. If you ask users and marketers, both sides will acknowledge that they get a lot of value from the personalisation of ads that show up on Facebook and Instagram. I think we are not in the world of traditional media from 30 years ago where ads were seen as intrusive and almost the cost that you had to pay for watching content. The big shift that happened, especially on a platform like ours, is how can you make ads so relevant to what users are looking for, that it adds value to their lives, and therefore they don’t see it as intrusive. You will hear it from businesses as well… The interesting part for me is that the frantic midnight calls that I get are not from the Government of India, they are invariably from a first-time entrepreneur who has not been able to use Facebook ads. So, this adds value to the ecosystem.

I think if you’ve seen explosive growth in consumer tech in India in the last 24 months, the reality is that a lot of them are disproportionately leveraging Facebook to drive that growth… Sometimes there is a disconnect between the pitch and what the true intent of it may be. Facebook has been pretty vocal that some of the changes that Apple made are harmful, not just to us, but it’s harmful to the interests of very small entrepreneurs. A lot of economic activity and growth of start-ups has happened because they now have access to global consumers with very little friction and very little cost.

It’s important for us to think about the implication of change, more than only looking at it as a competition between very large tech companies, although there’s a lot of that as well. All of this points to the need for a global framework in terms of what these rules should be. I think it’s better that there is some collaboration between democratic societies, especially in India, Europe and the US, which are the three big poles of open Internet, to have these conversations. These are complex questions and there are trade-offs on each one of these… There is self-interest from private companies as well, I acknowledge that. But it’s important to resolve all of that to say, where do we want to net? The more these rules are interoperable, given the nature of the Internet, the more the leadership is from democratic societies, the better it is for the Internet. It’s good for a country like ours, in terms of the stage at which we are at in the digital ecosystem in India.

SUNNY VERMA: Will Facebook ever think of having a fee-based platform for individual users who do not want to see ads on their accounts? Also, can you talk about the progress on your partnership with Jio.
We continue to believe in the free model. I know that the conviction in keeping the service free is very deep, is very real, and it comes from Mark (Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO) himself… There’s the belief that the model works when it’s available to everyone, and it’s not available to all unless it’s free. As for businesses, they pay us even now as advertisers (and not as users). Around 200 million businesses use the Facebook family of apps around the world, and only about 10 million of them are advertisers. So there are about 190 million businesses who use our services deeply and they don’t pay us anything. But of course, if they are advertising, they are paying us. Equally, there are lots of businesses who use WhatsApp for messaging, but we are starting to introduce mechanisms there. You will see that over the next year, some of the messaging services for businesses will be charged (on WhatsApp). So I think those two models can coexist. But it’s fundamentally about keeping the services free for users.

The Jio partnership is going well. We are trying to make it really easy for users around the country to order from the local store through WhatsApp, leveraging the Jio Mart retail network. It will provide massive utility not just for consumers, but really for the kirana stores. They will be able to leverage all the benefits of digital… We have 700 million people who are online in India, and the number keeps increasing every month. There’s a tremendous opportunity to bring the power of that digitisation to the small corner shop.

AASHISH ARYAN: You said that there’s a gap between the public narrative and the reality of the work that Facebook is doing. Why is that the case?
…It is important to recognise that when you make it easier for people to connect and engage, there will be some people who want to do harm… The gap in the narrative (is because) …when the harm shows up, there’s a lot of focus on that… Then you want to focus on fixing it rather than talk about what’s good. I think that’s fair.

Secondly, in maybe the last year, especially in India, some sections of the media have put disproportionate energy on the narrative of tech companies versus government. I think that’s overdone. I think the reality is that this conversation about scrutiny on tech companies, and what the new rules of the Internet should be, is a global one. It sometimes is contentious because there are extremely complex issues involved. There are trade-offs between, say, the agenda of free expression and the agenda of security. I think we are all trying to get our heads around how do we kind of land in a place where we can preserve expression while still having rules that limit harm. That conversation needs to happen but I don’t think it needs to be framed as this daily, contentious debate. The media has had a role in framing that. It influences the narrative.

AAKASH JOSHI: How will Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code impact the way you move forward in the Indian ecosystem vis-a-vis news?
The reality is that we work with news publications in India quite deeply. We are aligned on the agenda of how we can leverage the scale of our platforms to increase the reach and revenue in a way that news organisations can amplify and grow on the back of using us. Second, if you look at the news content on our platforms, it’s from publishers who are choosing to actively publish that content. I imagine that’s because they believe that there is value to it. The third thing is that only a very small percentage of content on our news feed is ‘news’. We call it ‘news feed’, it’s a feed… The challenge that we had in Australia is not that we believe that we shouldn’t be adding value to journalism… But I think we were uncomfortable with the forced arbitration framework. We managed to negotiate with the government and there were changes that both sides agreed to.

ANANT GOENKA: Many employees in organisations such as Facebook and Google seem to be quite publicly at odds with management decisions. It has led to some public resignations. Do you find yourself at odds with the thinking that comes from this section?
At Facebook, there is this culture where Mark shows up at a weekly Q&A and there are very hard questions asked… The company builds products that allow free expression by people around the world… and that product influences the internal culture as well. You can see that in not just the weekly sessions but even in regular conversation, that people are unafraid, unconstrained in terms of expressing their views.

… I think this conversation is happening at multiple tech firms… There’s a very clear articulation that the conversation has to be respectful. In some ways, it is no different from some of the community guidelines for our platforms. You can dissent, you can debate, but the conversation has to be respectful. Also making sure that there is a separation of the conversation around, say, politics, that may be about disagreements on our action on (former) president (Donald) Trump versus the spaces that are meant for work. Because as much as there are people who want to engage in the debate, there are also people who don’t. But you are right in pointing out that tech companies tend to have very feisty debates inside. I think that’s by choice, it’s by design…

ANANT GOENKA: Is there any country whose social media policy can be emulated by regulators in India, which is both collaborative and progressive?
My sense is that it’s still early, and this cake has not been baked yet… Different governments are putting their energies on different parts of this complex puzzle. We definitely think it will be very helpful if democracies, especially the three big poles, the US, Europe and India, find a way to collaborate and come up with a set of rules that are interoperable. It is not that we are seeking homogeneity… but at least to have a common framework for important things, given the nature of the Internet, where you are crossing geographical boundaries every day… That’s sort of on our wishlist.

SANDEEP SINGH: In the past year, stress levels of people have gone up. Based on what people are talking about on your platforms, have you got a sense of that?
When we entered the first phase of the pandemic, there was this huge desire to connect with the world outside and that showed up as growth on our platforms. Second, we have definitely seen the use of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp by people trying to help each other in times of crisis. And third, there’s a lot of effort to provide access to accurate information around Covid-19, and more in terms of vaccines lately… But a sentiment (analysis) on stress, is not something that I’ve seen…

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