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Snap out of it: Indians upset over Snapchat CEO's 'poor' comment need to read this

Sahil Bhalla | Updated on: 17 April 2017, 23:40 IST
(File photo)

It came from disgruntled ex-employee Anthony Pompliano. It was spread by a Hollywood gossip website. Its fallout spread to Indian e-commerce website Snapdeal, and even model Miranda Kerr was targeted on Instagram. Finally, there was an 'alleged' data leak of 1.7 million Snapchat users by the Anonymous Indian hacker group. And all of this because of an unverified comment from Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel about India being poor.

The first in India to report upon the ‘unverified’ gossip was none other than News18.

Clearly, five more minutes spent reading the original report from Variety would have meant that the entire #BoycottSnapchat, #UninstallSnapchat controversy could have been avoided. However, that lack of initial due diligence has lead to a furore in India, with the Snapchat app being heavily down-voted on the Apple app store.

Where the comment came from

Former Snapchat employee Anthony Pompliano filed a lawsuit whose details have recently come to light. It became public as Snapchat dropped efforts to keep the complaint under seal and released it in a public filing. Pompliano, a former Facebook employee, was fired after working for Snapchat for just three weeks. Pompliano is suing Snap Inc in a Californian court for trying to “destroy his career and reputation”.

The complaint was unsealed last week. In it, Pompliano alleges that he was abruptly cut off by Spiegel as he tried to propose ideas to drive international growth. Spiegel allegedly told Pompliano that he had no intentions of expanding the messaging app into countries such as India and Spain as they were too poor.

Pompliano also said that the company had inflated its user data. Moreover, many of the top executives were misled about key metrics. Pompliano further alleged that Snap executives spoke of him in a negative light to future prospective employers, therefore making it difficult for him to find employment. One last allegation was that Snap tried to 'violate his confidentiality' agreement with his former employer Facebook.

The company's response

The first thing Snap Inc, the parent company of the messaging app, did was to file a counter complaint saying that the employee was 'disgruntled'. They later dropped this complaint, but have filed a motion seeking to force this case into arbitration.

"This is ridiculous. Obviously Snapchat is for everyone! It’s available worldwide to download for free.” That was the response from Snap Inc. 

“Snap did not give investors misstated user metrics back in 2015; nor did Snap employees commit any of the panoply of alleged bad acts that litter Pompliano’s complaint. Snap will demonstrate as much at the appropriate time in the appropriate forum,” Snapchat wrote in its notice filed with the court.

Could he have meant internet penetration

While it is equally likely that Pompliano's story is untrue, it's worth questioning what Spiegel could have meant if he indeed called India 'poor'. Could Spiegel have been talking, not about the Indian economy, but about India's internet penetration? Before Reliance Jio came to the party, India's internet penetration was low and data usage wasn't anything to boast about. India's internet penetration is expected to grow 2.5 times by 2020 and mobile internet will lead the race, but right now, outside metropolitan and tier-1 cities, internet usage, whether mobile or broadband, is woefully low. 

Before Reliance Jio came to the party, India's internet penetration was low and data usage wasn't anything to boast about. India's internet penetration is expected to grow 2.5 times by 2020 and mobile internet will lead the race, but right now, outside metropolitan and tier-1 cities, internet usage, whether mobile or broadband, is woefully low.A number of Indians either have feature phones or do not have a strong enough mobile internet connection to use Snapchat on a frequent basis, if at all.

A number of Indians either have feature phones or do not have a strong enough mobile internet connection to use Snapchat on a frequent basis, if at all.

In 2016, according to The Mobile Economy Report 2016 compiled by Global System Mobile Association (GSMA), there were 616 million unique mobile users in India with at least 1 billion mobile connections by the end of June 2016. What’s crucial here is that, at the end of 2015, just 15% of these were on mobile broadband. The number is expected to touch 48% by 2020.India is the second largest smartphone market at the moment and the number is expected to touch 688 million by 2020. By 2020, 3G and 4G connections are expected to account for under 50% of the total connections and that ties in with what Snap said in its filing.

India is the second largest smartphone market at the moment and the number is expected to touch 688 million by 2020. By 2020, 3G and 4G connections are expected to account for under 50% of the total connections and that ties in with what Snap said in its filing.In fact, looking at Snap Inc's SEC filing (which is a necessity since it went public), the company highlights internet connections in a section titled "Risks Factors".

In fact, looking at Snap Inc's SEC filing (which is a necessity since it went public), the company highlights internet connections in a section titled "Risks Factors".“In addition, because our products typically require high bandwidth data capabilities, the majority of our users live in countries with high-end mobile device penetration and high bandwidth capacity cellular networks with large coverage areas. 

“In addition, because our products typically require high bandwidth data capabilities, the majority of our users live in countries with high-end mobile device penetration and high bandwidth capacity cellular networks with large coverage areas. We therefore do not expect to experience rapid user growth or engagement in countries with low smartphone penetration even if such countries have well-established and high bandwidth capacity cellular networks. “We may also not experience rapid user growth or engagement in countries where, even though smartphone penetration is high, due to the lack of sufficient cellular based data networks, consumers rely heavily on Wi-Fi and may not access our products regularly,” reads their filing.

“We may also not experience rapid user growth or engagement in countries where, even though smartphone penetration is high, due to the lack of sufficient cellular based data networks, consumers rely heavily on Wi-Fi and may not access our products regularly,” reads their filing.Most first-time smartphone users in India mostly buy low-end Android phones (forget about Apple phones), and a lot of them choose to conserve data. Facebook and Twitter realised this with both launching 'lite' versions of their apps. Snapchat is nowhere near that.

Most first-time smartphone users in India mostly buy low-end Android phones (forget about Apple phones), and a lot of them choose to conserve data. Facebook and Twitter realised this with both launching 'lite' versions of their apps. Snapchat is nowhere near that.Given that Spiegel's comment was allegedly made in 2015, this interpretation makes a lot of sense.

Given that Spiegel's comment was allegedly made in 2015, this interpretation makes a lot of sense.

Unhappy Indians

Still, Indian's haven't been looking to find sense in the matter, instead, they've gone berserk. Over the weekend, dissatisfied users started trending #BoycottSnapchat on social media networks Facbook and Twitter. These angry, internet-savvy people gave Spiegel a worse week than anything he could have ever imagined.

Some were unhappy at Indians and not entirely miffed with Snapchat’s Spiegel

The hack that wasn't?

The alleged hack of 1.7 million Snapchat users was orchestrated sometime last year according to a report from The Daily Mail. The hack was a part of a ‘white hat’ operation to find exploits in software. The report further goes on to say that the group is one of the top bug bounty teams out there. Lastly, the report says that hackers have leaked this data for free in retaliation to Speigel’s comments.

Snapchat, for its part, is yet to confirm that any data breach took place.

Futile down-voting

As pointed out by a fellow journalist on Facebook, Snapchat's ratings fell on Apple's app store and not Google's Play Store. Thanks to an article on Indiatimes, Indian media ran with the wrong headline. A classic case of Indian media not reading the full article and making assumptions.

Nonetheless, this boycotting hasn't made a difference to a company like Snapchat. We know that Apple's market share in India is just 2% according to Counterpoint Research data released in August, 2016. That's means that a large majority of Snapchat users in India are on the Android platform, on which the app still has a 4-star rating. Boycott Snapchat all you want, but only the 'influential' are having their voices heard on Twitter and Facebook.

While Twitter trends may indicate virality, there is no evidence to support the claim that Snapchat’s numbers in India dropped significantly.

Caught in the crossfire

An unfortunate side effect of Snap Inc’s CEO’s comments is that people in India are confusing Snapchat for Snapdeal. Snapdeal has been trolled on social media and the app has been down voted on Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store. It has been receiving multiple 1-star since the original story began trending.

India trolls are vicious. Even Spiegel’s fiancee Miranda Kerr wasn’t spared. She may have had nothing to do with Spiegel’s comments, but she was the target of all the trolls. In the minds of India, she’s as guilty as Spiegel by mere association.

Some of the worst comments are on her latest Instagram post:

First published: 17 April 2017, 23:01 IST
 
Sahil Bhalla @IMSahilBhalla

Sahil is a correspondent at Catch. A gadget freak, he loves offering free tech support to family and friends. He studied at Sarah Lawrence College, New York and worked previously for Scroll. He selectively boycotts fast food chains, worries about Arsenal, and travels whenever and wherever he can. Sahil is an unapologetic foodie and a film aficionado.

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