How its success is beginning to turn into a problem for Facebook in India
Late evening on September 2, Facebook India MD Ajit Mohan stepped out of the Parliament Annexe building--a stately sandstone structure that houses the library complex--with a clutch of binders. While a mask hid part of his face, his demeanour was weary. Accompanied by colleagues and dressed in formals, he had just stepped out from three hours of tough questioning by the Parliamentary panel on IT about the functioning of Facebook in India. The panel ultimately posed more than 100 questions to the company, demanding answers in writing.
The previous evening, India’s IT minister had written to his Mohan’s boss and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, personally accusing the “India managing director” and other staff of the company, of belonging to "a particular political belief”. A development like that, as well as this hearing, would normally have been dealt with by the company's high profile public policy head in India--Ankhi Das. In the event, her absence served as a reminder of the perfect storm Mohan and the company are faced with--allegations of bias from both the opposition as well as the ruling party, with the country’s IT minister himself levelling an accusation against the country MD.
This, at a time when the company’s ability to influence policy here is critical to its continued presence and business in its largest market by the number of users, where it was hoping to launch Whatsapp Pay, a payments play atop the ubiquitous chat app owned by Facebook. That and everything Facebook did in India to cultivate a favourable policy framework for itself, by heavily investing in a public policy team and lobbying capacity over nearly a decade, now looks dangerously shaky. And the high stakes controversy that shrouds it makes behind-the-scenes damage control virtually impossible.