With the debate over whether the free Internet services offered as a part of Internet.org violate the spirit of Net Neutrality raging in India, Mark Zuckerberg met a handful of Indian journalists at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park. The interaction took place minutes after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took part in a town hall with Zuckerberg on the campus.
Here are edited excerpts of the Zuckerberg’s responses to questions posted by the journalists, including Nandagopal Rajan of the IndianExpress.com.
Is Facebook trying to be the core of all things suddenly? How do you contest that perception?
I think to some extent all companies face a version of this when they become successful. The funny thing for us, is that we have this mentality that we are still very small compared to the impact we hope to have on the world in terms of helping people connect.
I tell the story sometimes… right after we launched Facebook at Harvard when it was still a school community, we went out for pizza and talked about the future of technology. After launching the first version of Facebook for a few thousand users, we would discuss how this should be built for the world. It wasn’t even a thought that maybe it could be us. We always thought it would be someone else doing it.
We were all college students at the time and there were these large companies like Google and Microsoft with thousands of employees. Now, looking back 10 years on, we think the reason we did this was we cared more about connecting people. All these companies had this opportunity to build social media, but they didn’t because they didn’t care for it.
Even though we were just college students, who didn’t have the kind of resources they had, we kind of went ahead and did that. That is still the kind of mentality we have today. Now, the next frontier is getting everyone in the world on the Internet. That we view as something we need to go ahead and do.
There are all these agencies and companies who could also be playing a big role, and some do, but the reason why we are pushing on this is that we care. We might seem like a big company, but that is not the kind of mindset we have.
There is this worry in India that social media is an unfiltered medium. Various government’s feel that the response time from Facebook and other social media platforms is not good enough to prevent a law and order flareup. How do you react?
We do not want terrorist content on Facebook. And we have made a lot of investment so that people can people can report any such content. There is too much content everyday for us to police it ourselves. But what we do is invest a lot on tools that help flag content and a community operations team look into and takes down objectionable content. And we also work very closely with law enforcement agencies to respond to legal requests within the law.
There is always more that you can do here, but when you have a community of a billion and half people we have to make investments to ensure people are not trying to promote violence. And that is what we are trying to do.
In countries like India, Facebook is reaching locations and devices that traditional Internet can’t. And with the wider plans you have with Internet.org, are you seeing yourself become parallel to the Internet?
Not at all, we want to spread the Internet, the whole Internet. In order to do that there are a lot of things that we are doing as part of Internet.org and other initiatives to reach people. So, we are working on new technologies like unmanned solar powered aircraft that can fly for months at a time and beam down access; we are working on satellites, laser communication systems, new business models like the Free Basics programme which we hope to roll out widely in India and other countries.
Even beyond that there are things, we should do to make Facebook a good experience on different networks, so we have launched Facebook Lite that consumers way less data. The reality is that most companies that are building Internet services aren’t building for a 1.5 billion people. We are pushing beyond that.
Even if you are building for a few hundred million users you can do that using mainstream technologies that are widely deployed. But if your are trying to connect everyone, you really have to push beyond the fringes. You should think of what we are doing as a very wide commitment to do all that is necessary to get Internet to folks.
How are issues like net neutrality, internet governance and cyber security affecting the way you are thinking? And, what do you think countries like India should be doing in terms of to get it right?
Lot of countries right now are going through, putting in place their regulations on how they are going to work on things. The US just did it, and I think did a pretty good job with net neutrality regulations and also made it clear that different things that spread connectivity with different business models are completely separate from that. There is this big debate in India now on how we balance these two things.
This is an important debate in India because it is the country with the most number of unconnected people — a billion people. We know that for every 1 person who get access to the Internet, one new job gets created and one person gets lifted out of poverty. So in theory going and connecting everyone on the Internet is a large national and even global priority.
It is probably one of the biggest things you could do. We here also believe in net neutrality very strongly. If someone wants to get access to some service, but an operator wants to charge more money, then that is bad. It isn’t a fair thing to do and is a big issue. But at the same time if you have a student in a classroom looking up for information for free and do her homework, it is hard to see why there is an issue with that.
I think we need to make sure we have the regulatory framework that enables both of those things, the net neutrality protection and the ability to work on new models for access. One model that I think is interesting around the world is that there are very widespread price discrimination laws everywhere. It is not necessarily legal to sell an apple and say men only pay $2 and women $3. We want laws preventing that. But then no one says that if you want to give an apple to a food bank for free that is wrong. I think we need to get the debate right.
Interent.org has been rolled out in 20 countries and India is by far the biggest country where there are most unconnected people. If we successfully roll out Free Basics around the world, but something goes wrong in India and don’t get the debate right, that will hold the whole world back.
One story that we tell people at Facebook is the story of the Indian mathematician Srinivasan Ramanujan. He got one math textbook and that was enough for him to recreate the whole of modern mathematics and push the field forward. The question we ask is what would have happened if he had access to the whole Internet? How many other Ramanujans are out there without access to even one book? That is why it is important that we get the debate right in India, though not just for India but for the whole world.
At the United Nations you talked about a declaration to connect more people. Are there any specific investments you will be making?
The connectivity declaration is about uniting the whole industry, a lot of companies that typically compete very fiercely, to push in a coherent direction. One of the reasons we renamed the app to Free Basics is to make it clear what the app does, and that is a business model for delivering free basic services. The other reason why we did it is that we wanted to make people understand that Internet.org and the programme that we have with all these other companies isn’t just that. Those two things have gotten conflated together, where a lot of people think that Internet.org is this one effort to connect people.
That is just one of the ways. We have other programmes like Express Wi-Fi, which offers all the technology a local entrepreneur will need to bring connectivity to his community and make money from selling Internet access. That is a model of how you empower the local entrepreneurs and economy. Then there are the technology investments like the planes and satellites. So it is this whole portfolio of things that is Internet.org. Overall it is hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. It is a big investment for Facebook and other companies as well. My wife and I are already thinking of ramping up on philanthropy.
We have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars on education which is the first big area, although we have also started working on health and funded a public hospital and the Ebola crisis response. Actually, I was travelling in India when we decided to do this.
The author was in Menlo Park as a guest of Facebook.