Could billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen be the Kanye West of the Silicon Valley Twitter world? While he may not yet be a lock for that title -- he needs to at least claim to be the "best investor that man has ever seen", which Kanye would have tweeted in a jiffy if he were a Valley VC -- he's not doing so badly at inching towards Kanye-esque stature, considering the recent continent-spanning controversy surrounding him that's exploded over the internet in the last few days.
It all started when India's telecom and internet regulator, TRAI, decided to cap a couple of months of intense debate, analysis and lobbying, by both Facebook and its opponents, to ban Facebook's Internet.org and Free Basics initiative which offered limited, free internet service to hundreds of millions of Indians but in a pay-per-play scenario for websites that, its critics say, went against the tenets of net neutrality. TRAI argued that differential tariffs would impede the smaller fish from offering their services, create entry barriers, and stifle innovation.
Now Andreessen, a Facebook investor and board member, who like Kanye revels in ranting on Twitter to his vast fan base, seemingly couldn't hold back and issued this now-deleted post: "Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?" He also tweeted, "Denying world's poorest free partial Internet connectivity when today they have none, for ideological reasons, strikes me as morally wrong".
Huh? Okay, lets try and decipher this riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside a tweet. From whatever I know of Andreessen, I am pretty sure he isn't the sort to cheer on colonialism as well as the daft suggestion that colonialism was more economically empowering for Indians than when they attained freedom. Or that while Free Basics is a newer breed of colonialism, it is the sort that should be welcomed. (For the record, in the early 1700s India's GDP was a staggering 24.4 percent of the world's -- 10 times that of Britain's, its soon-to-be coloniser -- but fell to a catastrophic 4.2 percent by the time of independence in 1947.)
So what did Andreessen in all his well-intentioned incoherence really mean? That in an effort to completely throw off the yoke of imperialism, India adopted a Soviet-style planning system that was in ideological opposition to what countries like the UK and the US stood for with their free-market, capitalist economies?
Hmmmm. Not quite. Andreessen unfortunately got this wrong too. As succinctly pointed out by The Huffington Post, Nehru got his ideas not from Marx or Lenin but from the Fabian socialists of the UK. If any country was influential to India's post-independent economic policies, it was the UK! Would India have been better off to follow a market economy? Undoubtedly. If this is what Andreessen was trying to say, then he's right.
But, as this Forbes writer said, fifty years ago "it was a perfectly respectable view that markets and competition were wasteful and that scientific planning of the economy would achieve better results. It was possible to argue against this on theoretical grounds but back then we didn't have the empirical base of examples and knowledge to be able to decide entirely one way or the other".
Anyway, Andreessen tried to diffuse what was by now a online maelstrom by issuing several grovelling tweets that proclaimed his love for all things Indian and how terribly sorry he was and that in the future he would not indulge in philosophising on economic and political matters in which he had no ground. But the damage was done. Meanwhile, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, eyeing a potentially alienated and fast-disappearing next-beachhead for Facebook, quickly trotted out this comment regarding Andreessen's tweets: "I found the comments deeply upsetting, and they do not represent the way Facebook or I think at all."
There's not much more to really add to the whole affair except to observe a few truths: Andreessen was once the underdog champion of entrepreneurs worldwide when he founded the world's first browser -- Mosaic, which then became Netscape -- only to see it quashed by Microsoft's Explorer, which came packaged with every computer in the world. So, they will be sad to see him neatly filling in the shoes of the kind of person he and his early fans were once wary of.
Second, it's amazing that Andreessen, Zuckerberg, and Co don't get that the world can see right through them -- naming something ".org" for anything but a non-profit is a pretty cynical move. Not only would services be paying for internet real-estate, but Facebook would be making tons of money on services and advertising.
The Andreessen affair is not just a loss of face for Facebook but the culmination of a karmic ruling on what the social network has been up to in India over the last several months.