Zuckerberg visits India to boost Facebook numbers amidst Internet.org hiccups

The social network has received fierce criticism for allegedly violating net neutrality, and if that isn't bad enough, if media articles are to be believed, Internet.org doesn't seem to be attracting many takers either.

Facebook supremo Mark Zuckerberg was in New Delhi recently, wooing Indians at a town hall meeting at the Indian Institute of Technolgy Delhi. This was his second attempt to do so after hosting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his headquarters in the US.

At the town hall, Zuckerberg sounded more like a social worker than a tech CEO: "If you really have a mission of connecting every person in the world, you can't do that without helping to connect everyone in India," he said. "We take that very seriously."

He added that people who haven't yet jumped onto the internet can't empower themselves by signing an online petition or some such thing for increased access. "We all have a moral responsibility to look out for people who don't have the internet, and make sure that the rules that benefit us don't get twisted for people who don't have a voice," he said.

Those are very warm and fuzzy sound bites, but the plain truth is that India is absolutely crucial for Facebook's future, moral imperative aside. As I mentioned in a previous ZDNet article, growth for the company seems to have flatlined in the West, and something infinitely more troubling for the company -- and perhaps a factor for that slump -- is the fact that younger users who were once bread and butter for the site, indeed, the lifeblood of its genesis, seem to think that the site is no longer cool.

Digital consultancy iStrategy Labs' recent study, which examines Facebook's Social Advertising platform, estimated that the site has 4,292,080 fewer high-school aged users and 6,948,848 college-aged users in 2014 than it did in 2011. That is a whopping 11 million fewer users -- and from a crucial demographic -- than just three years ago.

India, on the other hand, continues to add millions of users, most of them young, the demographic that Facebook craves. The tally in India is now at 130 million users, second only to the United States' 190 million, and scheduled to grow to 270 million people by 2019, according to eMarketer.

By then India will easily be its biggest market, and best of all for the company, will continue to grow at a rapid clip. It is true that India constitutes a tiny $103 million in ad revenue today out of $16.3 billion in the worldwide take, but that figure will continue to grow steadily and for a long time as more Indians jump onto to the internet. The fact that China has blocked the social network makes India a do-or-die place for Facebook.

However, while its audience in India is growing, the social network is not without its controversies and the biggest one of them all is the fracas surrounding Internet.org -- Facebook's plan to get billions onto its network from underserved areas by picking and choosing a bundle of sites to go onto the home page that would be free for users in these areas.

Instead of attracting positive vibes, the plan instead drew an avalanche of criticism in India, accusing Facebook of violating net neutrality. The move rallied millions of Indians who petitioned the regulator (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or TRAI) to prevent Facebook's plan from going ahead, and to ensure that there is equal access to all content.

While no regulation has been concretely inked so far, the agency's chairman, Ram Sewak Sharma, still didn't have great things to say about Internet.org. "Maybe they have wonderful objectives, but the way it is being implemented, that's not really appropriate," he said.

And what about how well Indians are taking to Internet.org? According to an Economic Times article, most people in poorer sections of society -- the very population that Facebook is trying to court -- have no idea about the initiative. What they do know however, is that Reliance Communications, the telco partner for Internet.org, has lousy network coverage and is way inferior to the other telcos.

One boneheaded move by the social network was the non-inclusion in the sign-up package, of what is becoming the most popular tool Indians use to communicate these days: Whatsapp, ironically owned by Facebook. Also, apparently users must pay to see the photos in their Facebook feeds. "If you have to pay for data, what's the point of calling it free?" said one user in the ET article.

In its defence, Facebook's India head said that around 1 million people signed on to try out the program and that 40 percent went onto a paid plan after the first 30 days.

That's not bad, but a far cry from the lofty goals that the program wants to achieve.

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