Mark Zuckerberg wants to connect everyone in the world. He wants to change India. He is as surprised as anyone at how enormous his company has grown to be. And he loves the Taj Mahal, which—who knew?—is “even more awesome” up close than in photos.
On his latest trip to India, the Facebook (FB) co-founder and CEO took to the stage on Wednesday for a Q&A town hall meeting in New Delhi for students at the Indian Institute of Technology, or IIT, a government research university whose many star graduates include India’s newest billionaires, Binny Bansal and Sachin Bansal, who launched the country’s biggest ecommerce company Flipkart just three years after Facebook was founded.
Given the brainpower concentrated among the elite students in the IIT’s small auditorium, and the fact that India has 1.28 billion people—more than four times the U.S.—it is not surprising that there were high expectations for Zuckerberg’s hour-long appearance.
When he announced his plans for his first Indian town hall meeting 10 days ago, I was traveling around the country on a reporting trip for Fortune, and the news of Zuckerberg’s trip made the front pages of India’s papers. (Yes, Indians still read print newspapers in huge numbers.) Hundreds of people posed their delight online that Facebook’s CEO was taking a serious interest in India. “Sir, please spend your valuable time with us,” one reader wrote from the northern city of Jaipur. Another offered this note of gratitude: “What I have it say is a big THANK YOU, Facebook is my lifeline.”
For the most part, Zuckerberg, whose down-home ease makes him a winning speaker, sailed through questions that barely challenged him beyond views he has long expressed on his Facebook page and in his staff town hall meetings back home.
Only twice did Zuckerberg break from his chattiness to remind people that Facebook now spends considerable time lobbying governments on issues of urgent importance; the 1.5 billion Facebook users, after all, would be the world’s second-biggest country if it was a nation, after China (where Facebook is banned, and where Zuckerberg wowed an audience last Saturday with a 20-minute speech in Mandarin).
The most serious issue revolved around Zuckerberg’s intent to connect the four billion-plus people in the world without Internet access—about one-quarter of them in India alone—through Facebook’s Internet.org, which partners with providers to offer stripped-down access at no cost in a service called Free Basics. That approach has drawn sharp criticism among many Indians, who complain that their patchy 2G connections and dropped calls make the reality far different from Zuckerberg’s grand plan, and that the scheme appears like second-class service for poor people.
During my visit to India the week before Zuckerberg’s arrival, full-page ads for Internet.org, which rolled out across the country last February, clogged the newspapers, showing touching scenes like Indian children researching their homework online on basic tablets. That is something hundreds of millions cannot yet do, since barely 15% of Indians are online.
On Wednesday, Zuckerberg gave a passionate defense of his plan on stage. “We all have a moral responsibility to look out for people who don’t have the Internet,” he told the students at IIT. “The people who aren’t on the Internet can’t sign an online petition pushing for more access to the Internet.”
Then came Zuckerberg’s push for net neutrality—the battle to get Internet providers to offer blanket access to users without blocking certain products or sites. “You guys should count on us to be supportive of that,” he told the students.
Perhaps as a cautionary lesson for CEOs considering town hall meetings in crucial markets, Zuckerberg had invited India’s 108 million Facebook users to send him questions in advance of Wednesday’s event. The most-asked question was this: How do we turn off the incessant ads on their Facebook pages pushing Candy Crush Saga? (“We are working on a solution,” Zuckerberg assured the audience.)
Other questions ranged from whether there should be an emergency mechanism to find missing people (yes, that is the U.S.’s AMBER Alert system, which Facebook, among others, adopted last January), to how Facebook will exploit artificial-intelligence technology (“help visually-challenged people know what is in a photo by reading out the description”) and how Zuckerberg feels about his coming baby (“excited. I want to take a video to share that experience with my family and friends who may not be able to come.”).
Despite the gushing welcome Zuckerberg received, it is apparent that the global tech industry needs India at least as much as Indians believe they need it. Only 130 million or so Indians are online right now but that is a bigger figure than almost any other single country can boast. India is already Facebook’s biggest market after the U.S., and every other market trails very far behind. Uber, which launched in India two years ago, now operates in 22 Indian cities and has millions of users, despite its gloves-off battle against the Indian rideshare startup Ola. The list goes on. Amazon, which like Facebook launched in India two years ago, has vowed to invest billions in the country and expects it to be its second-biggest market, too, within a decade.
Up in the grand old government buildings in New Delhi, officials are hardly surprised. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected last year, has charged ahead with his so-called Digital India program, geared to getting hundreds of millions more Indians online—essential in order for Silicon Valley giants like Facebook to keep growing globally.
Since Modi’s election, the government has launched a fund of funds to finance for venture capital companies, modeled after Israel’s financing of startups there, and has begun streamlining tax codes that have hobbled Indian online businesses—including thousands of companies that operate their business on Facebook.
“There has been a thicket of laws built up over 60 or 70 years, and we are taking an axe to that,” India’s Minister of State for Finance Jayant Sinha, yet another graduate of IIT New Delhi, where Zuckerberg appeared, told me earlier this month. Sinha spent decades in the U.S., as a partner at McKinsey & Co in Boston and Omidyar Network in Silicon Valley. “The scale of what is happening in India now is different,” Sinha said, sitting in his office. “In previous waves in India it was largely restricted to the top 100 million. But now startups are popping up all over, with scalable businesses.”
Even India’s old-world companies see a major transformation coming, which will likely see sharp growth online in India. “People like to say the winners have already been chosen,” says Kanwar Rameshwar Singh Jamwal, CEO of Tata Industries, in the Mumbai headquarters of the 130-year-old retail conglomerate, the Tata Group. “I don’t agree. This is a 10-, 20-, 30-year journey.”
Like every major tech executive, Zuckerberg wants to make sure he has a prized ticket for the voyage ahead.