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India Journalism Tech

Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter Face New Rules in India

That’s the headline on my latest story, out Thursday. It begins:

India is establishing new rules to govern internet firms like Facebook Inc., WhatsApp and Twitter Inc., a fresh challenge for the American giants in a huge market that is key to their global expansion.

The new guidelines, unveiled Thursday, say that in order to counter the rise of problematic content online like false news and violent material, intermediaries must establish “grievance redressal mechanisms” to resolve user complaints about postings and share with the government the names and contact details for “grievance officers” at the firms. These officers must acknowledge complaints within a day and resolve them within 15.

Social media firms must take down material involving explicit sexual content within 24 hours of being flagged. Firms must also appoint officers and contact people—who live in India—to coordinate with law enforcement agencies and address complaints. Some firms must also help identify the “first originator” of some messages, the rules say.

“We appreciate the proliferation of social media in India,” Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s minister of electronics and information technology, said Thursday. “We want them to be more responsible and more accountable,” he said.

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India Journalism Tech

Twitter’s High Hopes for India Waver Under Government’s Heavy Hand

2021 02 24twitter india

That’s the headline on my newest story, out Tuesday. It begins:

As Twitter Inc. looks overseas for growth, India stands out as its fastest-growing major market, one filled with opportunity—and increasingly thorny political challenges.

The San Francisco company in recent weeks blocked, unblocked and then blocked again hundreds of accounts in the South Asian nation for posting material New Delhi called inflammatory amid long-running protests by farmers. Twitter’s moves came after the government threatened the company with legal action, which could have resulted in a fine or imprisonment for Twitter executives, if it didn’t remove the handles.

Twitter finds itself in an awkward position, analysts say, as it publicly stands by its commitment to allow individuals to express opinions while also abiding by New Delhi’s increasing assertiveness over social media. Twitter’s balancing act highlights a growing conundrum for social-media companies as they run up against governments in key markets where they seek growth as developed countries become saturated.

“The problem they face is striking the right balance between ideology and being pragmatic,” said Ashutosh Sharma, a New Delhi-based vice president at research firm Forrester. “Should they be taking sides? They have to be consistent.”

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India Journalism Tech

India Threatens Twitter With Penalties If It Doesn’t Block Accounts

Twitter India

That’s the headline on my latest story, out Wednesday with my colleague Rajesh Roy. It begins:

India threatened to punish Twitter if it doesn’t comply with a government request to restore a block on accounts connected to tweets about farmers’ protests that the government says are inflammatory.

On Monday Twitter blocked more than 250 accounts from being seen within India following a government request after Indian officials said the tweets could incite violence. The officials singled out the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmersGenocide, which some Twitter users have been using to bring attention to the government’s crackdown on protesters.

The demonstrations have been going on for more than two months as farmers protest new laws as the first step in removing the government support they rely upon. New Delhi says the laws will help farmers and consumers by modernizing and streamlining the agricultural supply chain.

The blocking of the accounts on Monday, which included some respected news organizations and political activists, triggered an outcry on Twitter.

Twitter reversed the ban within 12 hours, saying the tweets in question should be allowed as part of free speech. The company said protecting public conversation and transparency was fundamental to its work.

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India Journalism Tech

Oyo Hotel Chain Suffered Ailments Beyond Pandemic’s Travel Slowdown

WSJ Oyo page one

That’s the (online) headline on my newest story, which I wrote with my colleague Phred Dvorak. It’s on today’s WSJ front page. It begins:

Just over a year ago, India’s Oyo Hotels & Homes was among the world’s hottest startups and the second-largest hotel chain globally. It had billions of dollars from SoftBank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund and others, and a valuation that had doubled in a year to as high as $10 billion.

Covid-19, and the destruction it dealt travel, blew up much of that. But Oyo’s issues run deeper than the pandemic. The company already faced problems from its rapid expansion, issues that won’t be fully solved by a post-vaccine travel recovery.

Oyo has seen thousands of hoteliers leave its network amid complaints from many that they have been treated unfairly. The company’s challenges outside India threaten its global ambitions.

Click through to read the rest, or pick up a copy of today’s paper.

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India Journalism Tech

In India, Facebook Fears Crackdown on Hate Groups Could Backfire on Its Staff

That’s the headline on my newest story, an exclusive with my colleague Jeff Horwitz, out Sunday. It begins:

Dozens of religious extremists burst into a Pentecostal church outside New Delhi in June, claiming it was built atop a Hindu temple. The group installed a Hindu idol in protest, and a pastor says he was punched in the head by attackers.

Members of a Hindu nationalist organization known as Bajrang Dal claimed responsibility in a video describing the incursion that has been viewed almost 250,000 times on Facebook. The social-media company’s safety team earlier this year concluded that Bajrang Dal supported violence against minorities across India and likely qualified as a “dangerous organization” that should be banned from the platform, according to people familiar with the matter.

Facebook Inc. balked at removing the group following warnings in a report from its security team that cracking down on Bajrang Dal might endanger both the company’s business prospects and its staff in India, the people said. Besides risking infuriating India’s ruling Hindu nationalist politicians, banning Bajrang Dal might precipitate physical attacks against Facebook personnel or facilities, the report warned.

Such conflicting concerns underscore the struggle Facebook faces in policing hate speech that exists in the vast sea of content posted to its platform around the world. The calculus is especially complicated in India, Facebook’s largest market by users. Facebook has staff on the ground, recently invested $5.7 billion in a new retail venture and interacts with a government whose politicians have ties to Hindu nationalist groups.

“We enforce our Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy globally without regard to political position or party affiliation,” said Facebook spokesman Andy Stone, calling the company’s process for determining what entities to ban careful, rigorous and multidisciplinary.

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Links to our previous stories on Facebook in India, if you missed them, are here:

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India Journalism Tech

Facebook’s WhatsApp Gets Green Light to Expand Mobile Payments in India

That’s the headline on my latest story, out Friday. It begins:

Regulators in India granted Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp permission to expand its digital payments service, a win for the company after a delay of nearly three years in its largest market by users.

The National Payments Corporation of India, or NPCI, said late Thursday that WhatsApp can bring the service to a maximum of 20 million users. That is up from the one million cap that has been in place since the encrypted messaging platform in February 2018 began offering payments via its app in a trial service, the first of its kind.

“I’m excited to share today that WhatsApp has been approved to launch payments across India,” Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a video provided Friday by the company. The service, which is free, enables users to connect their bank accounts to the app and easily send money to one another, just as if they were sending a typical chat.

Still, WhatsApp remains far from making the functionality available to all of its more than 400 million users in India. The NPCI said WhatsApp can start with a maximum of 20 million users—which would be about 5% of WhatsApp’s total user base in the country.

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India Journalism Tech

Facebook’s Top Public Policy Executive in India Steps Down

That’s the headline on my newest story, out Tuesday. It begins:

A Facebook Inc. executive in India who was at the center of a political storm over the company’s policy on anti-Muslim hate speech on the platform is leaving her position Tuesday, the social-media giant said.

Ankhi Das, Facebook’s top public-policy executive in its biggest market by users, said in an internal post provided by the company that she had decided to step down to pursue her interest in public service.

The Wall Street Journal reported in August that Ms. Das had opposed applying Facebook’s hate-speech rules to a politician from the ruling Hindu nationalist party, along with at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence, according to current and former employees.

Following the article’s publication, Indian lawmakers questioned Facebook officials, while the company’s staff pushed internally for a review of how it handles problematic content.

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India Journalism Tech

Facebook, Under Pressure in India, Bans Politician for Hate Speech

That’s the headline on our newest story, out Thursday. It begins:

Facebook Inc. banned a member of India’s ruling party for violating its policies against hate speech, amid a growing political storm over its handling of extremist content on its platform.

The removal of the politician, T. Raja Singh, is an about-face for the company and one that will be politically tricky in India, its biggest market by number of users.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Facebook’s head of public policy in the country, Ankhi Das, had opposed banning Mr. Singh under Facebook’s “dangerous individual” prohibitions. In communications to Facebook staffers, she said punishing violations by politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party could hurt the company’s business interests in the country.

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India Journalism

Inside Facebook and Private Equity’s $8.8 Billion Bet on India’s Richest Man

Facebook Jio

That’s the headline on my newest story, out yesterday. It begins:

Facebook Inc. and a trio of U.S. private-equity firms have in the past month poured billions of dollars into an upstart mobile operator controlled by India’s richest man.

The stakes, which add up to $8.8 billion, amount to a bet that Jio Platforms Ltd. and Mukesh Ambani, the chairman and largest shareholder of its parent company, Reliance Industries Ltd., are the players best positioned to bring legions of Indian consumers fully online and into e-commerce.

Facebook’s April announcement that it would invest $5.7 billion for a stake in Mumbai-based Jio was quickly followed by $750 million from Silver Lake and $1.5 billion from Vista Equity Partners. On Sunday, Jio said it was raising $870 million from another private-equity powerhouse, General Atlantic.

I also discussed the piece on an episode of our Tech News Briefing podcast. Click here to listen, or search for the show wherever you listen to podcasts.

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India Journalism Tech

Facebook Takes $5.7 Billion Stake in India’s Jio Platforms

That’s the headline on my most recent story, out Wednesday with my colleague Jeff Horwitz. It begins:

Facebook Inc. said it would pay $5.7 billion for just under 10% of Indian telecom operator Jio Platforms Ltd., a massive expansion of the social media giant’s commitment to a promising market where it has faced difficulties.

The deal, unveiled late Tuesday, is Facebook’s largest overseas investment and gives it the opportunity to bring its WhatsApp messaging service—which has more than 400 million users in India—into closer partnership with the mobile operator that upended India’s telecommunications industry with cut-rate data plans.

Jio Platforms Ltd. and its subsidiary, mobile operator Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd., are part of Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd. Jio Infocomm provides services to about 388 million customers.

The deal shows how Facebook, like other tech giants, is pushing ahead and taking advantage of its relative strength during a pandemic that is causing most other industries to retreat.

In a subsequent story, I looked a little closer at the who gets what out of the deal. The lede:

Facebook Inc.’s $5.7 billion tie-up with an Indian mobile leader could create a new kind of animal in the world’s biggest untapped digital market: a social media behemoth wedded to a mobile infrastructure titan—both coveting e-commerce.

Now the two companies are expected to square off against some formidable online shopping rivals: Amazon.com Inc. and Walmart Inc., which have each invested billions in the South Asian market.