On Friday, a Wall Street Journal report revealed how Facebook’s Ankhi Das, its powerful director of public policy for India, South Asia and Central Asia allegedly “opposed applying hate speech rules” against a controversial Telangana politician belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — T Raja Singh and “at least three other” figures associated with party and its ideology.
These instances were “flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence.” The WSJ report stated quoting “current and former employees” that Das allegedly told “staff members that punishing violations by politicians from Mr (Narendra) Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country, Facebook’s biggest global market by number of users.”
To be sure, once flagged, Facebook’s decisions involving elected representatives go through a thorough process — with detailed internal debates and discussions at the highest level of the company’s public policy teams. It had a “newsworthiness exemption” principle since 2016, which meant that “if someone makes a statement or shares a post which breaks our community standards we will still allow it on our platform if we believe the public interest in seeing it outweighs the risk of harm.”
Last year, Nick Clegg, it’s vice-president of global affairs and communications announced that Facebook will “treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content, that should as a general rule, be seen and heard.”
However, in June, facing advertiser pushback and boycott over its treatment of US president Donald Trump after the killing of George Floyd, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it will start adding labels. “We will soon start labelling some of the content we leave up because it is deemed newsworthy, so people can know when this is the case.” These labels would still allow users to “share this content” but Facebook would also “add a prompt to tell people that the content they’re sharing may violate our policies.”
Das’s alleged decision in Singh’s case bears a striking similarity to global reports from earlier this month, where Facebook’s vice-president of global public policy, Joel Kaplan is reported to have intervened to “remove strikes” against conservative pages in the United States. Facebook currently serves 300 million users in India. The latest controversy also comes amidst Facebook and its related products like WhatsApp emerging as one of the most important tools for political communication and propaganda activity across party lines in India, including hate speech.
Several networks — both official and unofficial affiliates of political parties — have emerged in the last five years, thanks to Facebook Pages. The other commonly used feature by these networks include Facebook Groups. These groups have emerged as filter bubbles — or spaces where information that only conforms to a set of beliefs or political ideology is shared — while also being closed spaces where misinformation and far-fetched conspiracy theories flourish.
However, this is not the first time that Das, who has been at the helm of Facebook’s lobbying efforts in India for nearly a decade since her move from Microsoft in 2011, has been in the news. She was also in charge of public policy when Facebook faced its biggest policy debacle in India, over its Free Basics (later Internet.org) clashing with net neutrality principles.
Since then, Das oversaw one of India’s largest public policy teams for a foreign technology company. Much in the mould of her previous employer, Microsoft. An expansive ramping up activity included hiring specialists in content policy, privacy, data protection and other possible regulatory issues that could be considered thorny for the company in India.
But to understand how Facebook’s public policy operates in India, it is important to look at the early days, particularly those between 2012 and 2014, when a lot of discourse around technology policy was just beginning to take shape.
How Facebook lobbied between 2012 and 2014
In November last year, American news giant NBC Newsreleased near 4000-pages of documents, including leaked internal memos, chats and emails between key Facebook officials, including its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. These documents are exhibits in a case in California’s San Meteo County filed by app-developer Six4Three LLC against the Menlo Park-based social networking giant. Six4Three LLC was the developer of the app called Pikinis — an iPhone app that automatically found swimsuit pictures on Facebook. It is now defunct.
These documents provided a glimpse into how Facebook, led by its public policy head in Das, lobbied in its early days in India, including engaging with non-governmental organisations, lobby groups like the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), think-tanks like the Center for Internet and Society (CIS), politicians like the late former finance minister Arun Jaitley and union ministers of the earlier United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, these court documents showed.
To be sure, none of this is unusual to the role of a “public policy” professional — which typically includes interactions with elected representatives, government officials (both bureaucrats and ministers), engaging with civil society, and industry lobby groups.
Facebook’s lobbying efforts, these documents revealed, were largely centred around three or four key issues in technology policy at the time. This included the intermediary rules, the privacy law, policy incentives for mobile and internet growth, internet freedom, and later, the early stages of its Internet.org offering.
In November, a Facebook company spokesperson said this in response to ET’s questions, “These old documents have been taken out of context by someone with an agenda against Facebook, and have been distributed publicly with a total disregard for US law.” Facebook did not respond to a fresh set of questions ET sent on Monday. Das did not respond either.
For instance, in a July 2012 memo, Marne Levine, the then Facebook global vice-president of public policy wrote in reference to the intermediary rules, “Minister (Kapil) Sibal is holding a closed-door meeting on Aug 2 with MPs following up on his parliamentary assurance of reviewing language in the rules which negatively impact freedom of expression and are inconsistent with constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights of free speech.” Sibal was the union minister for law and justice between 2013 and 2014, and while also holding the communications and information and technology portfolio between 2011 and 2014.
Levine today is Facebook’s vice-president of global partnerships and business development, having returned to the “blue app” in September 2018, after a stint as the chief operating officer of Instagram since 2014.
Levine also added that Facebook had “reached out to target MPs from opposition parties expected to attend this meeting and re-emphasized list of concerns.” Further, she noted that “the meeting with MPs will be led by Sibal and we can expect him to try and play a victim role and gain sympathy from the MPs, saying that the “US intermediaries don’t comply with local laws”. He may also raise concerns with the corporate structures of India entities of US companies.”
Facebook also “finished drafting a letter that (late) Arun Jaitley, leader of opposition can use on intermediary rules”. According to public court filings accessed by ET, Kapil Sibal currently represents WhatsApp, Facebook’s messenger platform, which counts India as its largest market. As recent as in May, Sibal represented WhatsApp in a Supreme Court case where a petitioner named Good Governance Chambers sought a ban on the messenger app’s payment service.
In the same memo, there was also a mention of the privacy law, which back then, was being drafted by a “Group of Experts on Privacy”, headed by Retd. Justice AP Shah. Facebook said it would be a “big focus” area for the company in the second half of 2012. “Ankhi (Das) engaged with members of the Govt-appointed committee…the committee is finalizing its report and will be opened up for public comments by end August-early Sept,” it said.
The memo added, “The proposed law contemplates setting up a DPAs India (sic); the committee members were not very forthcoming about the structure and the powers of the DPA.”
Think-tanks, industry associations and NGOs
The documents also revealed Facebook’s engagement with think-tanks such as CIS, which was involved in both the intermediary rules and the 2012-version of the privacy law. In the July 2012 memo quoted earlier, Levine highlights the work done by CIS on “organizing various speech NGOs to agitate against the Intermediary rules.”
She added, “CIS recently published a detailed analysis of the legality of the rules, calling them unconstitutional on various grounds. This was published as an Open whitepaper and sent to MPs, Minister Sibal, Dr (Gulshan) Rai, and the Prime Minister’s Office.” CIS, the memo further said, “will continue to keep up the public opinion pressure and keep organizing the activists.”
Sunil Abraham, formerly the executive director of the Bengaluru-based CIS told ET in November, “We have never organized NGOs, activists or the general public. We are a research organization. Also as a foreign-funded organization, we don’t do campaigning, advocacy or lobbying. Maybe they saw the convening of meetings as campaigning. That was just our research methodology.” He added, “The problem is research dissemination activities are sometimes misconstrued to be campaigning. Like meetings, workshops, op-eds etc.” Facebook funded CIS through a grant in 2017, according to the think-tank’s annual report.
Abraham has since moved on to becoming an endowed professor at ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnheim, the Netherlands. He is also a contributor to the Observer Research Foundation.
CIS, around 2012, was preparing, in the words of Facebook officials, a “so-called “consensus draft of privacy legislation, which will precede the introduction of privacy legislation sponsored by the Indian government.” Facebook, through its key officials, including Das, was also involved in submitting a draft of comments to this legislation. Das, a January 2013 memo, noted also worked with IAMAI “to develop and file industry representation on tax and policy incentives for increased broadband penetration, development of mobile app ecosystem and tax moratorium for online advertising by SMBs.”
Beyond issues like the privacy law, Facebook was involved in “coalition” meetings in the Supreme Court case challenging Section 66A of the IT Act, where four public interest litigations were being heard, including one by a member of parliament Rajeev Chandrashekhar. “The Supreme Court has issued notices to the Union of India,” the memo said, before adding, “All these public interest litigations, a total of four against the Govt. of India will be heard together from Feb-April 2013. The Govt. has a tough job defending itself.”
It further said, “We had a coalition meeting and agreed to keep the issue alive in the press in order to reflect public sentiment to the Court. Minister Kapil Sibal has said that issues will now be decided by the Supreme Court. He seems to have stopped pressuring companies and civil society groups. We engaged with the newspaper The Hindu(sic) to help shape this story (attached link).”
For Facebook, India has always been a user-base market. Which meant it was always going to come down to how it manages it — through public policy. While Facebook may have changed its policy tack since the Free Basics controversy, the contours of the debate have also changed. Access, thanks in most part to Reliance Jio, is no longer a problem. But what could be a problem for Facebook — is how intertwined it has become in the everyday discourse around politics. After all, it is just one post away from controversy.