Largely Lost in the Debate (and the Diatribes) over Indian PM Modi’s Visit to Silicon Valley Is a Complex Issue That Should Resonate with Americans

In the September 17 issue of the New York Times, Manu Joseph argues that the Modi government has been “Protecting the Internet, but Depriving India’s Poor.”

Joseph highlights the fact that about three out of four Indians have never accessed the Internet because they cannot afford to pay for an Internet connection—even though a very large percentage of less affluent Indians do have mobile phones.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg introduced what he framed as a solution to this problem:

“In February, Facebook and its partners introduced in India, a diminished but free Internet for the more than 100 million mobile subscribers of Reliance Communications. . . . So, millions of Indians now have access, in seven languages, to dozens of websites and applications, including BBC News, Wikipedia and, of course, Facebook.”

That “solution” created something of a firestorm because it introduced “post-imperial” elements into what was already a complicated and ongoing national issue.

Within India, much of the available bandwidth is already being consumed by the minority—which in India still amounts to several hundred millions of people—who have Internet access. Those users and the businesses with commercial interests in serving their needs are concerned that broader access to the Internet will almost certainly create an unmanageable volume of users.

In addition, although Facebook has no commercial agreements with the sites that it now makes available to subscribers of Reliance Communication, several other Indian companies have “tried to introduce a service that would make it free or cheap or faster for people to gain access to some applications that have a commercial agreement with the operator.”

Although Joseph ultimately frames his observations in a very partisan way, he then explains how efforts to commercially limit Internet access in India have been conflated with efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere to begin charging high-volume sites proportionately for the traffic that they generate:

“There is a global movement against strategies that corrupt the open nature of the Internet, and Indians joined the lament. The movement ended up including Internet for the poor among the offending telecom strategies. This was a flawed, principled stand. And it fit well in the history of the Indian elite deploying ideology to the detriment of the poor–central planning instead of a market economy, a focus on higher education over primary education and rocket science over virology.”

And, despite his obvious partisanship, Joseph does very pointedly highlight the contradictions in some of the arguments against broader Internet access for poorer Indians:

“The elite Indian condemnation of Internet for the poor is cloaked in righteous objections. For instance, that it is ‘’restrictive,’’ thereby violating the fundamental spirit of the web. But is limited because data is expensive, not because it promotes some websites over others. In fact, it is paid Internet that is restrictive because it denies the web to those who cannot pay.”

And Joseph does present a very succinct case for why Facebook’s initiative is not simply a front for some sort of more self-serving, if not pernicious, corporate agenda:

“Mr. Zuckerberg has been at pains to tell Indians that his offer of free Internet to the poor does not violate any ethics. Facebook does not charge for any application that wishes to be on, and it does not post ads on the Facebook pages of the users. Also, the company does not pay Reliance to provide the free service. Mr. Zuckerberg has said that any telecom operator would be allowed to carry A Facebook spokesman told me, ‘’We are actively in discussions with other mobile phone operators in India.’”

Nonetheless, Joseph cannot deny that the global political dominance of the U.S. and the global presence of U.S. corporations does raise concerns that Facebook’s role in expanding Internet access in India will inevitably increase the corporate reach of Facebook and the expand the influence of U.S. culture.

But, he offers several pithy rejoinders to those concerns:

“Many are ignorant because they never had the opportunities, like being connected, to be informed”


“The history of modern India is proof that corporate self-interest is often more useful to society than altruism.”

Joseph concludes: “Mr. Modi, instead of banishing, may consider uploading government websites on it. Facebook is discussing that possibility with his team.”



5 thoughts on “Largely Lost in the Debate (and the Diatribes) over Indian PM Modi’s Visit to Silicon Valley Is a Complex Issue That Should Resonate with Americans

  1. Having read this, I am still lost on the point that Prof. Martinkich seeks to make. It must be my illiteracy. Is it to highlight just one article pushing one company’s immediate agenda? The Indian government has a Digital India initiative that seeks to bring connectivity to everyone, and to bring government to the people through connectivity. Has the Professor spent some time understanding this initiative, to tell us why that is inadequate, and why the Indian government “should upload government websites onto”? Indians cyaint build their own servers and upload their government’s site to that, huh? Does the US government keep IRS, CIS and White House websites on a Chinese ISP? (I am sure that would ensure reliable backup since they must have downloaded all). Lacking these, the article comes across as another patronizing and ignorant diatribe pushing one product. Has the professor tried making a few notes from a few other sources than this one article by Joseph? Finding out facts beyond “In India that’s several hundred million”? – (let me help you with the math: if 3/4 of 1.2 billion have no access, then only 1/4 have – that would be three hundred million, which is more than 2, but a bit less than ‘several’)

    Is this what AAUP does? Push one commercial product? Snake-oil sales?

    Reminds me of an article back in 1984 titled: “If it took an Indira to rule it, India is no democracy”, predicting and salivating at the imminent breakup of India after the assasination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. By Professor Robert Ackerman the Editor of a newspaper in a major American city. As a letter writer remarked then: “Given the access to information that Mr. Ackerman has in the United States, his ignorance of the facts is truly remarkable”.

    As for the so-called “debate”, here is an article that examines some of the sources of the anti-Indian Scholiar L.O.S.E.R. Letters etc: Professor Madhav Nalapat, an accomplished journalist and international-affairs scholar writes on the antics of the losing leader of the Nepotist Party in India:

    We can get a glimpse on who pays for those $30,000 electronic signs in the Bay area “protesting”. All that deep concern about India appears to be just more paid negative ads by rent-a-protestors. In Pakistan they call it “Lifafa” (cash-stuffed envelope) journalism.

    Please illuminate us on your informed point if any, Professor. Thanks!

  2. And just as a note: If 300 million Indians already have Internet access, that’s as many as the entire population of the USA. Given the huge disparity in per capita incomes/wealth between the USA and India, that at least implies that the cost of Internet access in India is a lot less than it is in the USA. So they should import an American product and surrender their government’s websites onto that to reduce costs and increase access for Indians? Has the professor studied the Internet Divide in the USA? Access in, say, the Native American ‘Reservations’? In south Texas or Wyoming? Why can’t bring universal access in the USA so that students all over the USA can access the websites that we have put up at such immense effort? Does this not suggest that the business plan is perhaps not all that it claims to be? So doesn’t that make the professor’s article crass commercial advertising using AAUP resources and his privileged access to those?

  3. I would like to thank the Professor for removing my doubt by dissecting his tongue( writing in this case) to measure the immense joy of giving unasked, sidewalk style free professional advice to the leader and nation of Billion plus people l on how to apply a technological tool for nation’s advancement for they know no technical skills , especially in software. Sire,Any advice on how they should eat, drink,dress and walk ? Once again, please accept sincere thanks and appreciation in taking so much intellectual burden on your heavy shoulder to worry about 1.2 Billion-100 People who may benefit so much from ancient Mac Flecknoenian Tribal wisdom.

  4. I was reporting on Joseph’s editorial, not necessarily endorsing it. These issues are–as I take pains to emphasize even in the title of the post–very complex and largely unfamiliar to U.S. readers, including academics. I repeatedly acknowledge that Joseph’s argument is very clearly slanted to support a particular position. I am simply to trying to point out the places where the argument seems to be effectively presented and the places where it is thin.

    In large measure, I am attempting in this post to provide some clarity for U.S. readers on why the posts on PM Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley have provoked such intense interest, concern, and political vitriol.

    So, the premise of the post is, of course, that Joseph knows more about these issues than I and most U.S. readers know about them, but there is no assumption that he has provided the last word on these issues.

    But I think that, even given his clear position on the issue, Joseph has acknowledged the opposing views in a somewhat reasonable, judicious way.

    The same cannot be said of the previous three comments on this post, which like many of the comments on other posts on these topics seem to try to pre-empt continuing discussion and to bury any alternative viewpoints under a pile of over-wrought rhetoric.

    To be clear, AAUP is not responsible for any opinions expressed on this blog–and certainly not for my opinions, which are often strongly expressed.

    Finally, I do wish to point out that whenever I am chastised by readers for expressing opinions with which they strongly disagree, I am usually accused of being unthinkingly partisan or self-indulgently intemperate or both. Yet, those who are doing the chastising typically come across as unthinkingly partisan or self-indulgently intemperate–and exhibit no awareness of any of the irony in their taking that tone.

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