Please do read an important disclaimer at the end of this post
In January 2015, users of Microsoft’s Office in India were suddenly greeted with a pop-up asking them to “Support Microsoft Office”. The Indian government under PM Narendra Modi was said to be formulating an “Open Source Policy” under which all government offices were to either mandate or prefer open-source software for official work.
Clicking the “Support Office” button caused Microsoft to send the PMO and the Ministry of IT a letter from the user’s name with a pre-determined format. It said the user’s loved Microsoft’s products and wanted their government interactions to be based on the same. “I urge you not to ban Microsoft Office,” it ended.
The same message popped up on users of various Microsoft products in India - Windows, XBox, Windows Phone, Skype etc.
Within a few weeks, over 7 million emails had been sent in support to Microsoft.
In January 2014, farmers in the southern Indian state of Karnataka were surprised to see a notice attached to every bag of seed they bought from Mahyco, the market leader.
“Tell the Karnataka Govt. not to ban MMB”, said the notice. MMB was Monsanto-Mahyco Biotech, the joint-venture that licensed Monsanto’s crop technologies in India.
Farmers were told to affix their signatures, or if they didn’t know how to, thumbprints, on a paper petition at the time of paying for their seeds. There was a 10% discount for those who did.
Within 2 months, Monsanto-Mahyco had mailed in copies of over 1.3 million pre-written letters with farmer’s signatures and thumbprints to the state Department of Agriculture and the Chief Minister’s Office.
In July 2014 Uber users in India started receiving pop-up alerts when they opened the Uber app to order a ride. India’s central bank, the RBI, had reportedly been studying how Uber was allowing users to use their credit and debit cards to pay for rides sans the mandatory “two-factor authentication” (2FA) checks that all other mobile and Internet businesses in India had to follow.
Many users complained about seeing the pop-up numerous times in a day. Some were shown the message as a push notification on their Android and iOS phones.
Those that clicked the “Click here to tell RBI” button were shown a pre-written message asking the RBI to continue Uber operating the way it was. “I love Uber and so do all of my friends. We’ve never been cheated by Uber. We don’t want another password. Please don’t ban Uber’s convenience.” said the letter.
In 5 weeks, Uber claimed to have sent 3.8 million responses to the RBI and the Ministry of Finance.
In September 2015, clients of Infosys in the USA suddenly received pop-up messages in their project management dashboards and via email.
“Tell the US Congress not to ban or restrict the vital H1B visa program,” said the alert. Some clients reported that merely trying to close the alert box led to a message “Thank you for registering your support!”. The contact details of the clients were taken from Infosys’ database and appended to a pre-drafted message urging the US Congress to not restrict the H1B visa program. “It is a source of innovation and growth for the US economy.”
Some Infosys clients in Europe and Asia too reported having received the alerts, which the company passed off as errors.
In less than 2 months, Infosys claimed to have sent over 750,000 emails to the US Congress.
In case you haven’t already caught on, all of the above examples are false. They never happened. The images used with the examples aren’t real, but photo-edited. Neither Microsoft, Monsanto, Uber or Infosys did any of the things above (though each of the regulatory or governmental actions used in the examples are completely real).
But here’s what did happen.
After Facebook mounted an expensive ($44M in advertising alone, according to widely reported estimates) and all-out advertising-cum-lobbying campaign to force TRAI, India’s apex telecom regulator body, to allow its controversial zero-rating program, Free Basics, things came to a head.
On 18th January, TRAI sent out a letter to Facebook. The context was TRAI’s public consultation process to evolve India’s policy outlook towards “differential pricing” of data by telecom providers.
For citizens and consumers long used to seeing regulators either turning a blind eye to, or allowing, unethical actions by large corporations, the letter was a welcome surprise. TRAI’s entire letter is remarkable (PDF, 2.5MB, 5 pages) and I urge you to read it first.
But in my opinion the most important aspect from the letter was this:
What TRAI was flagging, quite aptly, was that Facebook had tried to hijack a taxpayer-funded, public consultation process into a referendum on Free Basics.
And clearly the question that linked Facebook’s lobbying efforts in India to “dangerous ramifications for policy-making in India” was this: should a large, powerful private corporation be allowed to use its customer base to overwhelm regulators and hijack due process for its own strategic goals?
Would it have been okay for Microsoft, Monsanto, Uber or Infosys to do what our hypothetical examples illustrated? Facebook clearly thinks it’s okay. Here’s what Chris Daniels, Free Basics V-P at Facebook, said recently in an interview to Rohan Venkataramakrishnan at Scroll:
The phrase that most aptly describes what Daniels passes off as “absolutely fair” is “Platform Abuse”, as described by columnist Parminder Jeet Singh in The Hindu.
The implications of such ‘platform abuse’ are not difficult to see. Imagine a close election contest in the future when Facebook, say, has 70 per cent of adult Indians as its users. There are two main parties and, say, FDI or higher corporate taxes has become the key election issue. What if Facebook does a similar campaign two weeks before the elections, taking a strong position favouring one side, reaching and ‘engaging’ its users in a manner that others cannot do using the same platform?
I’ve argued earlier that overlooking Facebook’s pernicious attempts to astro-turf Indian policy making by ‘weaponizing’ its users will only set a precedent for other large companies to follow.
This form of behavior is unprecedented in India’s regulatory history. Even Microsoft at the height of its power and facing the prospect of central and state governments switching to open source, did not directly exhort individual Windows or Office users to lobby on its behalf. If Facebook’s DDoS attempts go unchecked, why will a Google or Microsoft not want to leverage its Android/Search or Windows/Office users to hijack public policy agendas at scale?
Google’s Android probably has over 100 million users in India. Microsoft has tens of millions of Indian users across its Windows and Office platforms. IBM’s software powers tens of thousands of Indian businesses and government departments. Citibank serves over 2.3 million Indian customers. Cisco’s routers power startups, large companies and government departments.
If Facebook thinks it has the exclusive right to use its own platform and users to conduct a lobbying campaign targeting the Indian state, so do each of the above, and dozens of other companies with large user bases, commercial interests and resources.
Which is why we must commend TRAI for accurately spotting and calling out the “dangerous ramifications” from Facebook’s lobbying efforts, and hope that the Indian government (and all other regulators) will nip this blatant practice of “Platform Abuse” right in the bud.
Disclaimer: As I’ve already stated in the post, the incidents relating to Microsoft, Monsanto, Uber and Infosys mentioned in this post are not real, though the incidents and contexts they’re set in were real. They are used only to highlight what “platform abuse” might look like if every large company does it.