MENLO PARK — India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Facebook today to chat about his country’s progress in becoming a more digital society, investing in the country, and women’s empowerment.
In a short Q&A town hall session, the leader of the world’s largest democracy spoke about how India was moving forward with using technology to be better connected with its citizens. All the questions from the audience were hand-picked prior to the event and none mentioned Internet.org.
After standard opening greetings by both Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Modi, the first question related to how the prime minister viewed social media. Modi says that world leaders “wouldn’t gain from running away from social media” and they should embrace it. “You’ll have a good government if you have many channels,” he said.
We’re living in a new world of diplomacy. Modi says that citizens are more connected with one another and that he’s active in many places, including in China. He remarked that on Weibo, he recently wished the country’s premier a happy birthday and that message quickly went viral and was newsworthy. “No one thought this is what diplomacy would look like,” Modi confessed.
Social media is “the new face of diplomacy” and Modi aid that if the world is a big family, social media is playing a huge role in keeping it together.
There were three questions that Zuckerberg took from the audience at Facebook’s headquarters. The first one involved an entrepreneur that asked about the digital infrastructure and what Modi would do to make sure people would be connected (likely tackling the prime minister’s Digital India initiative). Modi remarked that it wasn’t about choosing between the physical and digital infrastructure. Instead it’s about working on these two simultaneously. India has 250 local governments and Modi’s hope is that over the next five years, these areas will be connected through the use of fiber-optic networks.
“Civilizations originally settled along rivers, but time has changed. Cities have shifted to highways, but soon they’ll be situated along fiber optic networks,” Modi believes. He revealed that he’s placed a priority on using technology to make governance easy and economical.
And how would women play a part in this new economy? Modi said that he strongly believes in the power of women in society saying that if India expects to meet its economic goals, it can’t imprison 50 percent of its population at home. It needs to be a 100 percent partnership between men and women.
He also remarked that he would be working to further help educate girls, citing his experience when he was the chief minister in the region.
Modi appeared to get emotional over the last question that Zuckerberg asked which involved talking about mothers. Both parents of Facebook’s CEO were in the audience and Modi paid tribute to them. It was when he was asked about his mother that Modi seemed to pause often, reflecting on the incredible sacrifices that she has made for him to rise from the owner of a tea shop in India to the leader of this populous nation.
Promoting Digital India
Modi has received quite a bit of attention about his visit to Silicon Valley, with perhaps a great deal extending to him being a technology aficionado. Since his election to office last year, he has sought to implement his “Digital India” initiative that leverages high-speed internet access to facilitate innovation in his country. Certainly this falls into line with not only Zuckerberg’s vision via Internet.org, but also Google’s.
Connecting with technology companies shouldn’t be that surprising as Modi wants to learn about how these services are helping to better connect the world. “Social media is reducing social barriers. It connects people on the strength of human values, not identities,” he said at an event on Saturday. “I see technology as a means to empower and as a tool that bridges the distance between hope and opportunity.”
India’s prime minister arrived in California on Saturday, making him the first Indian head of state to visit the area in 33 years. He has made it a point to meet with many of the industry’s leaders such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, Tesla head Elon Musk, and others. The purpose is to glean enough knowledge to help jumpstart innovation in his country.
Digital India is a government initiative aimed at ensuring that the public can have access to information without all the necessary paperwork — think Gov 2.0, which had previously been championed by Tim O’Reilly. It also seeks to expand access to high-speed internet networks throughout India, including in rural areas. Modi has set a goal for 2019 for all of this to be completed.
Modi has touted the success his government has made in the past year thanks to U.S. technology: it has tackled poverty by utilizing networking and mobile devices to help empower people resulting in 180 million new bank accounts created, insurance for the poor, and establishment of retirement pensions; he says that 170 applications have been identified to help India’s government function better; and more.
Committing to India
Today’s special Facebook town hall isn’t the only newsworthy event during Modi’s visit to the technology capital. At a private dinner on Saturday, executives from some of the biggest companies in the region announced support for the world’s third-largest economy (based on purchasing-power parity).
Among those that reportedly made announcements was Qualcomm’s executive chairman Paul Jacobs, who committed $150 million to startups in India and said the company would establish a design innovation lab there.
Satya Nadella was said to have also offered remarks, saying that Microsoft would begin offering cloud services from Indian servers.
Lastly, it’s been said that Google would be also making investments in India: it will provide Wi-Fi access in 500 rail stations and plans to have Android keyboards available in 10 Indian languages next month.
Not accepted by all
Modi’s arrival in Silicon Valley has been welcomed by many, but not all. Academics have penned a letter raising concerns about the visit, saying that they believe the Digital India initiative raises issues about safeguards about privacy of information. Namely, signatories of an open letter say it “seems to ignore key questions raised in India by critics concerned about the collection of personal information and the near certainty that such digital systems will be used to enhance surveillance and repress the constitutionally-protected rights of citizens.”
Others have raised issues around Facebook’s Internet.org initiative with concerns about it abiding by net neutrality’s principles.
In response, Facebook’s Vice President for Internet.org Chris Daniels told The Economic Times earlier this week: “The net neutrality debate in India and particularly the criticism around Internet.org was really a small group of connected individuals who were spreading fears about what the programme could do to the Internet.”
Others have protested Modi over his responsibility to stop the 2002 religious riots in the Indian state Gujarat when he was the chief minister of the state. In fact, as people drove up to Facebook’s headquarters, there were protestors lined up voicing their opinions.
Zuckerberg’s political connections
Of note, this is Zuckerberg’s latest meeting with a world leader, having spent time last week with China’s President Xi Jinping and addressed dignitaries at the United Nations on Saturday. The meeting with Modi also happens to be the second town hall event that Zuckerberg has had, with the first chatting with President Barack Obama in 2011.
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