NEW DELHI :
Facebook sees itself as an ally of India in its economic growth, Ajit Mohan, company’s India vice-president and managing director, said. In an interview, Mohan, who took charge as Facebook’s India head in January, also shared his thoughts on the social media giant’s agenda, misinformation, data localization, startups, regulation, and the synergy with WhatsApp. Edited excerpts:
What’s the strategy for Facebook in India with you at the helm?
I think the starting point for us is the deep recognition in the company that we’re excited about the India opportunity and (are) grateful for it. We see ourselves as an ally for India in its economic growth and social development. We have services in India that reach every corner of the country and there is a deep engagement by users every day. Facebook in India today has more than 328 million monthly active users (MAUs), WhatsApp has more than 400 MAUs and Instagram, especially in the last two years, has been on fire. We see a consequential combination of apps deeply embedded in the Indian fabric.
What are the opportunities where Facebook India can make an impact?
We believe we can make a material contribution to economic growth and the agenda of job creation. That is because new ventures and small businesses thrive on Facebook. We have a family of apps that in many ways represents the internet in India and we want to make sure that we make the interventions that bend the curve towards fixing the gender imbalance. The third one is on financial inclusion with the possibility of what WhatsApp Payments can do. WhatsApp Payments is now a pilot for 1 million users and we are waiting for regulatory approval. We have said we will comply with payments localization there.
The launch of the WhatsApp payments would be the beginning of probably the biggest disruptor movement and financial inclusion that India can think of.
You have invested in a couple of startups such as Meesho. Are you planning any more such investments in startups?
Unlike a private equity fund, we’re not saying we need to deploy a certain amount of capital within a certain time frame. That’s not the lens with which we’re looking at it. We’re bringing in a really long-term, patient capital lens, but equally driven by opportunities we see. We have an opportunity to fuel a model that will have an impact on economic growth and entrepreneurship in India. Can it impact women on the internet? Can it fundamentally create new models that could foster innovation for the world? I think Meesho meets all these criteria. If there are other startups that meet those criteria and they’re interested in partnering with us, we will remain very open to it.
Facebook and its apps have come under the scanner for spreading fake news. How are you dealing with it?
We recognize that there’s sometimes the risk of bad actors using our family of apps to spread misinformation. There has been a very front-footed approach to address it through multiple ways such as the third-party fact-checking programme on Facebook. In a private forum like WhatsApp, which is encrypted, one of the big changes we made was limiting forwards to five that limited the virality of all kinds of information. One of the big things to recognize is that in many cases, we are dealing with competing values and interests. On the one hand, you want freedom of expression. On the other, you have legitimate concerns over national security. We are sensitive to the issues that the government has raised. Equally, the government has said they think encryption is a good idea and they believe in the value of private messages. We’re dealing with very difficult challenging trade-offs. There are very thoughtful conversations going on to figure out what can be a balanced approach.
What is Facebook’s position on data localization?
We’re deeply conscious that in a world where China has created a model where the internet is walled off, it is a tripolar world in some ways. There’s the US, there’s Europe, and then there’s India which is a very consequential voice. What India does will influence the global Internet economy. The right answer is for data flows to remain open for there to be opportunities to new services and algorithms that add value for everyone, including India. There’s no question of telling India what to do. We’re committed to building on the tech capacity that already exists, making the right kind of investments in India in a manner that will fuel this transformation to an internet economy.
What sort of talks are you having with the government?
Mature democratic governments around the world, including in India, recognize that they’re dealing with very difficult issues on which we have to find the right answers. But we welcome regulation. We have recognized that we need to chart the new rules of the Internet. Wherever we have had the opportunity to communicate a point of view on multiple things, we have leveraged and we have only seen openness on all issues linked to privacy and data.