Why Facebook & WhatsApp Attract Controversies In India And Why Not Google?

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Rajan Anandan
Source: Getty Images

Mountain View, Google’s headquarters, and Menlo Park, Facebook’s HQ, are just seven km apart in the US technology capital Silicon Valley. But in India, the distance between them seems like thousands of miles. This is as per a report in the Economic Times by Shelley Singh, Venkat Ananth & Nilesh Christopher.

Google, although not free of controversies, seems fairly well integrated in India. Facebook and its WhatsApp service seem to attract only controversies. Why have the two Silicon Valley giants fared so differently here? ET spoke to technology experts, academics following tech companies, government officials and executives of the two US behemoths (most conversations in the last two categories were off record). There are two broad reasons.

First, people. Google opened its India office in 2004, the year Facebook was founded in the US. Tech observers say Google has always had a more local talentcentric approach than Facebook. Google has key people running India. Its head Rajan Anandan is a familiar figure in tech and policy circles. Sapna Chadha spearheads marketing, Nitin Bawankule is country head for Google Cloud and Pankaj Gupta is director of engineering, Next Billion Users, Google India.

Churn in Facebook India

Source: Indian Express

Anand Rangarajan is engineering director, Google India. Look at Facebook’s churn at the top level in India. Barring its first hire in India, Ankhi Das, who spearheads policy, there’s been little stability. Facebook recalled its ad sales head Kirthiga Reddy back to the US headquarters (she is no longer with the company) when the Free Basics programme failed. Late last year, Reddy’s replacement Umang Bedi quit after spending just about 15 months with the company. Early this year Munish Seth quit. He spearheaded Facebook’s Express WiFi programme to digitally connect villages in India.

Source: Seeklogo

And WhatsApp has only now agreed to look for an India head. Nitin Hiranandani, partner, Hypersonic Advisory, a Gurgaon-based consulting firm, pointed out to this difference to explain why Google is gets better reception than Facebook. “Technology is way ahead of legislation. Digital laws are still evolving. That’s all the more reason you must have people who can engage with regulators on a daily basis.” Hiranandani told ET.

Mirtunjay Kapur, partner & head, telecom, media & technology at KPMG India, empahsised the same point: “It can’t be a digital relationship with the government, it has to be a physical one. You can’t remotely run India operations.” Vivek Wadhwa, distinguished fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Silicon Valley, has another explanation: Facebook’s global management is not diverse, Google’s is. “Look at the management and board of Facebook — it does not have a single Indian or Asian.

This is very rare in Silicon Valley. Look at Google in comparison: Russian founder, Indian seed investor, Indians in senior executive positions, Indian CEO…,” Wadhwa says. “Because of its diverse management, Google understands other cultures and values. Facebook is insular and doesn’t understand the vast majority of its customer base — and that is why it is doing so much damage,” he argues.

Source: GSMArena.com

Apart from the people-centric differences, there is also the element of trust erosion. Facebook’s actions have eroded trust in a way Google’s haven’t, experts say. As Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama, says Facebook’s “disingenuous” attempt to push Free Basics and its opposition to net neutrality, global concerns about its commitment to privacy, and WhatsApp sharing data with Facebook — all this has impacted Facebook’s image. This was compounded by the fact that it lacked senior talent here to talk to government.

‘MATURE HANDLING’

Google, experts say, has also attracted fines, from CCI, for example, but its “more mature” handling of company-government interface has helped it. A New Delhi-based public policy professional said Google’s policy strategy, generally, but specifically in India, can be classified as “issue-based ramp up”. “Google has always tried to send out a perception that they care about the country…” Google also actively engages with and supports industry associations, another person in the technology field said.

Plus, said a technology executive, Google has a “low risk” strategy. “Low risk, because it isn’t as ambitious or aggressive as other companies, including Facebook,” he said. All of this is in stark contrast to Facebook, which has tended to opt for a more frontal approach in dealing with the government and civil society. Part of that could be attributed to Facebook’s perception of India as a policy-first, sales-second and a product-last market, many technology experts said.

They pointed out, as of today, it does not have a single product manager sitting in its offices in India, which is largely dominated by operations executives and mid-to-junior level engineers, besides partnerships, sales and policy officials. And these professionals and experts, too, pointed out the government’s perception of Facebook is dominated by the memory of its role in the net neutrality debate. They said post that debate, Facebook has appeared more of a lobbyist which tries to control things remotely, while Google is seen as more sophisticated in its advocacy efforts, led by its country head Anandan.

“It’s very rare to see a company escalate an issue (net neutrality) so publicly that it became a fight, and there, Facebook has ticked people off big time,” one policy expert said, adding, “mid-level bureaucrats have become wary of them.” As a result of all this, experts say Google is now involved with a number of government projects, while Facebook/WhatsApp are engaged in damage control. They say while the specific reasons for Facebook/WhatsApp controversies may differ, it’s the broad strategic mistake that has put the company in a tough situation.



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