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In October 2020, when Ankhi Das resigned as Facebook India’s policy head, it was a moment of reckoning. Das stepped down after a Wall Street Journal investigation accused Facebook of allowing hate speech by politicians from India’s ruling dispensation—the Bharatiya Janata Party—to remain on its platform. This was allegedly done at the behest of Das in order to protect the company’s business interests in the country, which happens to be its largest market.

Having served as policy head since 2011, Das was Facebook’s longest-serving employee in India. Her exit and the scandal associated with it finally brought the murky world of big tech public policy firmly into the open. There was now a level of accountability that hitherto was the exception rather than the norm. Business as usual—which often meant treading in moral grey zones, including doing favours for the ruling political party—was suddenly untenable.

Facebook, of course, isn’t the only big tech company whose public policy team played fast and loose with ethics. Sources told The Ken that at Google, funds assigned to a third-party lobbying firm for advocacy work were misused. The alleged transgressions happened in 2018-19, with the funds originally meant for advocacy work related to India’s upcoming data protection laws. According to a highly-placed source, the money was used to fund a public functionary’s travel to Europe, as well as the visit of a Google staffer.

Sources said that this was effectively a violation of US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The details of the case remain unclear. In response to detailed questions by The Ken, a Google spokesperson said, “Technology is a big part of ongoing policy debates, and we appreciate that policymakers and public interest organizations have questions for Google and about the Internet. We work hard and in accordance with applicable laws and our ethics and compliance policies, to help them understand how our products and services work, including through consultants and organizations.”

With India’s growing importance to big tech firms, scandals could impede their ambitions in the country—something they can ill afford. 

Amazon, for instance, has ploughed over US$4.5 billion into the Indian market. In the year ended March 2020, its revenue grew 43% to Rs 10,847.6 crore Rs 10,847.6 crore Money Control Amazon India's e-commerce unit loss widens to Rs 5,849.2 crore in FY20, revenue up 43% Read more  (~US$1.4 billion). Facebook India, meanwhile, recently announced that it had crossed US$1 billion US$1 billion Times of India Facebook’s India revenues top $1 billion Read more in revenues for the year ended March 2021.

AUTHOR

Pratap Vikram Singh

Pratap is based out of Delhi and covers policy and myriad intersections with the other sectors, most notably technology. He has worked with Governance Now for seven years, reporting on technology, telecom policy, and the social sector.

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