Apologies aside, is Facebook secretly condoning colonialism in India?

Facebook board director Marc Andreessen apologized for his pro-colonial tweets Wednesday, but critics remain skeptical of Facebook's intentions in India's developing online market. 

Adnan Abidi/Reuters/File
Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive officer of Facebook, addresses a gathering during the Summit in New Delhi, Oct. 9, 2014.

After a firestorm of backlash on Twitter early this week, Facebook board director Marc Andreessen has apologized for his comments that invoked colonialism and condemned the Indian government’s decision to ban the site’s free Internet service.

On Monday, India rejected Facebook’s Free Basics Program, which offers free Internet service to to poor and rural areas, citing principles of net neutrality. The “pared-back version” of free Internet would have limited access to companies outside of the service contract.

But other critics say Facebook’s faults stretch beyond net neutrality, and point to the company’s possible intentions of monopolizing India’s growing online market.

In reaction to the dismaying news, Mr. Andreessen, a venture capitalist, tweeted: "Denying world's poorest free partial Internet connectivity when today they have none, for ideological reasons, strikes me as morally wrong.”

"Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” he went on. “Why stop now?"

After receiving harsh criticism online, Andreessen deleted his comments and tweeted out an apology.

"I apologize for any offense my comment caused, and withdraw it in full and without reservation," he wrote. "I will leave all future commentary on all of these topics to people with more knowledge and experience than me."

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg also responded in disapproval to Andreessen’s comments in a Facebook post Wednesday.

“I found the comments deeply upsetting, and they do not represent the way Facebook or I think at all. India has been personally important to me and Facebook,” he wrote.

“Facebook stands for helping to connect people and giving them voice to shape their own future. But to shape the future we need to understand the past. As our community in India has grown, I've gained a deeper appreciation for the need to understand India's history and culture.”

But the damage has already been done. And the connection between Facebook and colonialism, critics say, is nothing new.

In an email to The Atlantic, Deepika Bahri of Emory University sums up the eerie similarities between Facebook’s global expansion and the classic narrative trajectory of colonialism:

1. ride in like the savior

2. bandy about words like equality, democracy, basic rights

3. mask the long-term profit motive (see 2 above)

4. justify the logic of partial dissemination as better than nothing

5. partner with local elites and vested interests

6. accuse the critics of ingratitude

“The explosion of mobile phone usage in India even among folks who could be regarded as ‘poor’ aptly demonstrates that contrary to what some people might believe, poor people are more than capable of demonstrating agency and adopting technology on their own ,” writes Sumanth Raghavendra, a startup founder in India, in a Medium essay casting doubt on Facebook’s moral intent.

“There is absolutely no need to offer a condescending promise based on altruism to bring these folks online. They will do so on their own time and at their own pace with or without any external help or artificial incentive.”

This report includes material from Reuters.

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