Facebook Inc., the Menlo Park-based social networking giant has reportedly hired Ajit Mohan, the current CEO of Hotstar as the managing director and vice-president of Facebook India. Ajit will succeed Umang Bedi who was at the helm of Facebook India till October 2017. The news of Ajit’s appointment was reportedly first announced by Star India CEO Uday Shankar in a company town hall.
Ajit Mohan: Road Ahead
With a ban in China, India is the largest untapped market for Facebook. Starting with Free Basics, the social media giant has on numerous occasions found itself on the wrong side with the Indian regulators. Facebook opened its India office in the year 2010 and hired Kirthiga Reddy, its first employee in India to oversee the operations in Indian sub-continent. All went well, till Mark’s pet project FreeBasics initiative was launched in India in partnership with Reliance Mobile, the then India’s fourth-largest telecom company.
The initiative was marketed by Facebook as a tool to enhance accessibility to the internet in an affordable manner. Net Neutrality activists across India campaigned against FreeBasics which they dubbed as a “walled garden” experience because the sites that users can access for free are determined by Facebook and its telecom partners, essentially making them gatekeepers to the internet for poor people.
Following the wide uproar, TRAI prohibited differential pricing for data in the country which led to shutting down FreeBasics altogether in the country in February 2016. Facebook had lobbied hard to keep the initiative live with a reported campaign expenditure INR. 100 Crore.
Following the fiasco, Kirthiga Reddy was recalled to the headquarters and was replaced by Umang Bedi who was till then the MD of the South Asia region at Adobe. Umang who joined FB in June 2016 left the company by the end of 2017. Facebook is without a full-time India head for the past ten months or so.
In June 2018, Facebook received widespread criticism on the news of data breach involving an estimated 5.6 lakh Indian users. IT minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, warned that they may even summon Mark Zuckerberg under the provisions of Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act) to investigate the matter further.
Facebook India CEO: WhatsApp Conundrum
In the recent times, WhatsApp the instant messaging app owned by Facebook became a major source of fake news. The viral messages on the platform triggered mob killings across India. WhatsApp which is an end-to-end encrypted messaging app cannot trace the source of messages and was under pressure from the Indian government to include a traceability feature. To tackle the menace, WhatsApp in June 2018 has introduced “forwarded” tag on messages that will be forwarded. WhatsApp which till date doesn’t have a direct employee in India was forced to appoint a grievance officer in September 2018 as per the provisions of IT Act.
On September 20, it was reported that the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) is in process of drafting a letter — its third since July to the Facebook-owned platform — asking it to design a technology-led solution to the issue that in the past has led to mob lynching or riots in the country. IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had earlier stated, “(WhatsApp) needs to find solutions to deal with sinister developments like mob lynching and revenge porn and has to follow Indian law.”
Facebook India CEO: The Search
Facebook, extensively searched for a replacement of Umang with job postings even on LinkedIn. The company hired senior executive search firm Spencer Stuart to lead the process. Facebook has reportedly have interviewed who’s who of Indian corporates: Star India MD Sanjay Gupta; Ajit Mohan, CEO, Hotstar; Sameer Nair, CEO, Applause Entertainment, part of the Aditya Birla Group; D Shivakumar, group president, strategy at the Aditya Birla Group; Tata Sky MD Harit Nagpal; Sudhanshu Vats, Viacom18 group CEO; and Sudhir Sitapati, executive director-refreshments at Hindustan Unilever. As reported by Times of India, Facebook even considered Srivatsa Krishna, an Indian Administrative Service officer from 1994 batch belonging to Karnataka cadre. Why Mohan? While we are not aware of the interview process, it is an open secret that Ajit Mohan has built Hotstar from scratch and made it a leading OTT player in India.
Facebook CEO: Sales Facing Role?
Kirthiga Reddy and her successor were more of sales executives than a policy and PR relations executives. According to Reddy’s LinkedIn profile, she was in charge of SMB sales for Southeast Asia and managed large advertiser and agency relationships for India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and parts of Pakistan. In the backdrop of frequent face-offs with government agencies, from FreeBasics to Fake News, the role as Sales Head is of no use. The current CEO is expected to act as the face of Facebook in India bridging the gap between Menlo Park and New Delhi much like what Rajan Anandan is to Google South Asia.