Following Facebook’s ₹43,574-crore investment in Jio Platforms, the vice-president and MD of the India arm of the U.S.-based social networking giant, Ajit Mohan, spoke on the opportunities in India and the benefits the company sees from the deal, while also allaying concerns over data privacy. Excerpts from an interview:
You have talked about the Facebook-Jio deal in the backdrop of a digital revolution in India. What opportunities do you see?
[For Facebook], India has a special place for many reasons — the largest communities on WhatsApp, and Facebook app are from India.
It is hard not to look at India and see a pretty exciting economic and social transformation… in the last five years, there has been an explosive expansion in access to affordable mobile broadband bringing more than 500 million people online. I would imagine it’s one of the fastest expansions in access to the Internet probably anywhere in the world. So, I think that context sets the excitement.
All our three apps — Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp — have a particularly special place in the lives of Indians.
We see it from the engagement, we see in terms of how culturally embedded these services are in our lives everyday. Therefore, we’re not looking at it as specific short-term transactional opportunities.
We look at it from a long arc… even though India is in the beginning of that transformation, led by digital, the opportunities have opened up in such a substantial way, whether it’s in healthcare or education or entertainment, that there is an opportunity for us to play an enabling role. So, the horizon is very long. I think the arc of our thinking is focused on the long term.
How does Facebook benefit from the Jio deal?
One of the roles that Facebook plays in the digital ecosystem is that we are big enablers for small businesses.
Even today, businesses use and leverage our ad platforms on Facebook and Instagram to reach new customers, to find new markets, sometimes in the cities where they are and sometimes, outside India… most frugal marketing and growth spend from new ventures, the first-time entrepreneurs, invariably tends to be on Facebook because it is a marketing spend that is accountable. They get clear and measurable returns for the money.
I think we played a fairly material role in fuelling the growth of small businesses. And, that continues… one of the big pillars of the strategy that we articulated for India last year was: ‘how can we do even more to fuel entrepreneurship and the growth of small businesses in India’… on the back of the investment in Jio Platforms, the two companies have agreed to look at working together to fundamentally open new doors for the digital ecosystem with a particular focus on small businesses.
How do you see the three applications contributing to the digital revolution, specifically with respect to the Jio deal?
It is interesting when we look at each of these three apps. Each one plays a distinctive role.
We have articulated this as Facebook and Instagram represent a town square and WhatsApp represents the living room, where it is [about] the intimacy and privacy of your engagement. We have seen growth in all the three in India… both in terms of new people coming in as well as engagement.
We have seen it go up in India and around the world over the last few weeks.It’s great to see our apps being more relevant than even during the normal times.
With the Jio Platform investment, the first idea that we’re exploring is on WhatsApp. It could well be that over the next few months and years there will be ideas around Facebook and Instagram. But the first idea that we’re exploring is on Whatsapp because WhatsApp is encrypted, we are not able to see the messages, but we see it from observed behaviour that people use WhatsApp to communicate with their local stores, whether it’s the local kirana or the local pharmacy. It’s already happening.
We saw a potential to structure and reduce the friction around the behaviour that already exists and ways to make it a lot more easy for people and businesses. We’re really thinking through: ‘can we make it easier to locate a local merchant,?’ ‘can we service a product catalogue elegantly?’ And, of course, in a world where we get approval for WhatsApp payments, you’re paying from within WhatsApp.
This collaboration doesn’t assume Whatsapp Pay. We think there’s still a big opportunity to reduce the friction in discovery and connect merchants to people.
That’s exactly the value for us, because between Jio Platforms and JioMart, Jio is essentially activating and digitising millions of small businesses in India. They have a distribution and fulfillment backbone. Our focus will be on ‘Can we make it easier to service merchants and products from within WhatsApp, and to make it easier to buy things from within WhatsApp?’ We are exploring this in India first. From that lens this is super exciting for us.
Concerns have been raised on privacy and data sharing. How will data between the two companies flow?
When I look at the conversations that I have been a party to from across the digital ecosystem, the overwhelming message that I’ve heard is positive. Most businesses, especially the smaller ones, see it for what it is…that this is such a huge positive impetus to the digital ecosystem and that the two companies really have the opportunity to expand the economic pie and create new models.
To the extent that there are concerns about data, all that I can say is that this collaboration is not about data sharing. That is not the point of it at all. I think we are very clear that this is a non-exclusive arrangement. We are clear that we will adhere to all the principles of neutrality and data protection that have already been outlined.
That wasn’t even a part of our conversation because it’s a given that we will be open platforms. It’s a given that it won’t be exclusive; we will work with other partners.
Are you looking at more partnerships in India, and more sectors?
Absolutely. When you look at the history of Facebook in India and around the world, you will see a company that is actually constantly working with partners. I think working with partners of all kinds is an organising philosophy of the company and that doesn’t change…if I look at all our work across the ecosystem, we partner with creators, media companies, publishers, platforms and developers. The blood donation on Facebook has only been possible through partnerships with blood banks and governments. We launched Facebook fund-raisers last week, which essentially allows anyone to ask their friends and family to contribute to a charity of their choice. We have partnered with Give India for this. Even on a particular area of interest to us, which is video, we’ve opened up multiple collaborations on video, including the collaboration we announced with the International Cricket Council last year on partnering with them for big ICC events.
We have always believed that for a company like us, our success is quite vested in the success of the overall digital ecosystem. And that is very much true in India and as much as we see ourselves contributing to it, help fuel it, we are also clear that we benefit from it, and we benefit from partnerships.
Fake information is something that a platform like Facebook has been trying to deal with. But what are you doing, especially with respect to COVID-related misinformation?
I would sort of aggregate our efforts into three large buckets. One is how we can help ensure people have access to the right and accurate health information. We launched the COVID hub on the Facebook app. It’s the first thing that you see when you launch the app, and it’s essentially a gateway to an aggregation of accurate health information which is local. The collaborations we have done with myGov and 13 State governments for WhatsApp, 10 State governments for messenger, was really creating an architecture for a messaging based service for people to get access to information.
The second bucket is our work on fact checking and in India we have one of the largest network of fact-checking partners anywhere in the world. That work continues. We are clear that whenever we see any kind of information that is harmful, we take it down… these could include myths on treatment of coronavirus.
The third is on the economic front. We announced a $100 million corpus to help small businesses around the world, including in India. We’re launching that programme in the next few weeks and ramping it up.
We’re really leaning in a very front footed way to make sure that people have access to accurate health information and we’re kind of limiting access to any kind of misinformation on our networks. At the same time we are super focused on helping the economic recovery and of course the role that we have seen in all of this is that people are really using our apps to stay connected.
We launched Rooms on Facebook last week, which is an attempt to make it easier for a safe experience on video for friends and families. And you will see that there’s going to be a lot more product innovation around making it even easier for people to stay connected…it’s an extraordinary moment. It’s one of those moments where the entire people around the world are going through the same experience. They are looking at a lot of services but they’re also looking to us to play a particularly important role through these days and weeks and that’s a big focus as well.