Marc Andreessen’s reaction to the Free Basics ban was more than a flub, it showed us the Wonderful Wizard of Oz is indeed a fraud
Facebook’s strategy of opaqueness, platitudes and idealism for its Free Basics program has just blown up in its face.
And it turns out the detonation device was a series of misguided, and historically insensitive, tweets from Facebook board member, and Silicon Valley celebrity, Marc Andreessen.
For those living under a rock for the last 24 hours, Andreessen stood on his soap box and decried the morality of Indian authorities after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) banned Free Basics on Monday.
In the ensuing argument, Andreessen strayed into the politics of British colonialism after Indian VC Vikram Chachra compared Free Basics to ‘Internet colonialism’. The tweet in question is below, thanks to some quick thinking on behalf of @BabaGlocal.
— Baba Bridgeportia (@BabaGlocal) February 10, 2016
While the colonial tweet caused the uproar, the problem was the glib response at the end of the night, brushing off the concerns of pissed off Indians as if they were pestering gnats. It brought to light a dismissive attitude and fanned the flames of those worried about Free Basics’ darker motivations.
To give an idea of what the backlash looked like, here is a tweet from @caillemillner
If ANYONE in Silicon Valley cares about @pmarca come and get your boy bc he’s abt to yell “We gave those ungrateful natives the railroads!”
— Caille Millner (@caillemillner) February 10, 2016
Andreessen officially apologised in a series of tweets (I wish he had the courage stand up in public and actually apologise), and Facebook has distanced themselves from the incident in an extraordinarily cutting post from Mark Zuckerberg.
But the important story is not Andreessen revealing he is, indeed, a rich white guy. The story is the curtain being pulled on the Internet.org wizard.
Now, the public is free to wonder if we are staring at a regular man (Facebook) perpetrating Internet colonialism; whether or not he is actually aware he is doing so.
I can’t (and I won’t) speak on British colonialism in India, but I can (and I will) speak on the American colonial mindset — of which we just witnessed an excellent example.
American colonialism comes from a place of goodwill. The thought process goes, “we have all these great things. Freedom, money, technology, let’s share it with the world. Let’s utilize our resources to free people from tyranny, lift people out of poverty and pull the developing world into the 21st century”.
The problem is not everybody wants the American experience, and if they do, they are not willing to let the bull in the china shop because it has a habit of breaking things.
Is it morally wrong to deny free Internet access to the extreme poor? Or is it worse to hand that power to one company and in five to ten years look up and realise it was a terrible mistake?
The TRAI believes the second question is worse, and in the judgement explained the reasoning.
19. In India, given that a majority of the population are yet to be connected to the internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting TSPs shape the users’ internet experience. This can prove to be risky in the medium to long term as the knowledge and outlook of those users would be shaped only by the information made available through those select offerings. Further, to the extent that affordability of access is noted to be a cause for exclusion, it is not clear as to how the same users will be in a position to migrate to the open internet if they do not have the resources to do so in the first place.
This, I think, is what Facebook is failing to understand. India is not against free Internet, they are against Facebook providing free Internet.
It is why the phrase Internet colonialism works — a group of high-minded, rich, Western, white people forcing a group of people to take something they do not want.
What might be most frustrating is, for the last year, many Indians have been pointing to the Wizard’s curtain and telling everyone to look behind it. But we were so distracted by the flashes and bangs and promises of a big heart we brushed aside concerns of net neutrality and data gathering.
I guess Marc Andreessen’s Twitter account was our Toto.
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