A member of Facebook’s board and influential Silicon Valley investor was forced into a groveling apology on Wednesday after acknowledging that remarks appearing to support British colonialism in India were “ill-informed and ill-advised”.
In a series of apologetic tweets, Marc Andreessen, who is accustomed to ranting on Twitter to nearly half a million devoted followers, apologized “without reservation” for an earlier, now deleted tweet.
“I am a huge admirer of the nation of India and the Indian people, who have been nothing but kind and generous to me for many years,” Andreessen wrote. “I will leave all future commentary on all of these topics to people with more knowledge and experience than me.”
The humiliating climbdown came after Andreessen lashed out on Tuesday night at India’s decision to block Facebook’s controversial Internet.org and its Free Basics project, which sought to offer limited free mobile internet but would open the door for a private, unregulated and pay-to-play internet service.
India’s telecommunications regulatory board banned Facebook’s $45m effort to deliver Free Basics and ruled in favor of net neutrality, writing that “differential tariffs arguably disadvantage small content providers who may not be able to participate in such schemes”. This could, the body added, “create entry barriers and non-level playing field for these players, stifling innovation”.
Those fighting for an open internet in India lauded the ban. “This is great news,” said Kiran Jonnalagadda, a member of the Save the Internet campaign in favor of net neutrality. “It is what this country needed and it took a lot of effort pushing for it. It took a lot moral fibre for TRAI to stand up to the telcos.”
Andreessen, in his tweets, argued that India rejected it because of corrupt Indian telcos wanting to keep internet access away from poor people.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”
Facebook swiftly denounced his comments, saying: “We strongly reject the sentiments expressed by Marc Andreessen last night regarding India.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a statement on his own Facebook page calling Andreessen’s comments “deeply upsetting”.
“I want to respond to Marc Andreessen’s comments about India yesterday,” Zuckerberg wrote.
“... they do not represent the way Facebook or I think at all. India has been personally important to me and Facebook ... I’ve been inspired by how much progress India has made in building a strong nation and the largest democracy in the world, and I look forward to strengthening my connection to the country.”
From the start, the project has raised questions about net neutrality and just how much control Facebook will have over the internet access it brings and whether it would charge more to visit certain sites.
As the venture capitalist Om Malik wrote: “I am suspicious of any for-profit company arguing its good intentions and its free gifts.”
Silicon Valley, home to some 90,000 Indians, including Google CEO Sundar Pichai, reacted swiftly with a collective shudder. As did Indian entrepreneurs.
“The bottom-line is that this ban on differential pricing was not decided by some elitist group of activists who have some un-articulated vested interest to prevent India’s poor folks to come online but by TRAI in an extraordinary democratic process that was both rigorous and comprehensive,” wrote Sumanth Raghavendra, an entrepreneur at Deck App Technologies, a Bangalore-based startup. “And remarkably courageous.”
Other members of Andreessen’s venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, however, defended the message.
Another member of the influential firm, Benedict Evans, joked about what he sees as a history of inefficiency in India technological policy:
It’s not the first time Silicon Valley has stumbled on clumsy statements about India. Last year, Airbnb cofounder Brian Chesky wrote that Gandhi wouldn’t have succeeded if India, back then, had tried to limit rentals to a minimum of 30 days.
By comparing Free Basics to colonialism, Andreessen, an investor in companies like Airbnb and Facebook, drew an interesting parallel between Silicon Valley’s concept of “free” – which often comes with strings attached – and the American history of colonial rule.
He was arguing that Silicon Valley is colonial by nature, giving the gift of something free in exchange for a tax of data and control which people don’t quite realize they’re providing.
This desire to own and control is often presented by tech evangelists in terms of freedom, equality, and access – Internet.org, as Facebook calls the umbrella effort under which is puts Free Basics, is not a non-profit. It is a for-profit arm of a for-profit company. Adding the “.org” may have an impact on public opinion or confuse journalists, but the fact remains that Free Basics was an effort for Facebook to make money.
By Wednesday morning, apparently chastened by the uproar intense enough to make Andreessen a trending topic in south-east Asia, and with a public relations disaster looming for Facebook, the venture capitalist backtracked.
Other members of his firm, Benedict Evans and Balaji S Srinivasan, have not retracted their statements.
Some in the tech world are throwing up their hands.
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