Indian demonstrators of Free Software Movement Karnataka hold placards during a protest against Facebook's Free Basics initiative, in Bangalore on January 2, 2016. The group's demonstration was aimed at urging members of the public to say 'no to free basics' which they allege will affect net neutrality and give Facebook monopoly over the internet. AFP PHOTO/ Manjunath KIRAN / AFP / MANJUNATH KIRAN (Photo credit should read MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg has clashed with Marc Andreessen, a longstanding Facebook investor and board member, over what the social network’s founder called “deeply upsetting” remarks about India’s colonial history by the venture capitalist.

The unusually public spat between Facebook’s chief executive and one of his most prominent backers follows a significant setback earlier this week for the social network’s plan to bring free mobile internet access to India.

Mr Zuckerberg’s robust reaction underlines sensitivities around that issue — he has said he “won’t give up on” finding new ways to boost internet access in the region — and the importance of India to Facebook’s future.

The country has about 400m internet users, an online audience second only to China in scale, making it a magnet for technology companies ranging from Facebook to Apple.

But on Monday, India’s telecoms regulators blocked Facebook’s Free Basics scheme after banning so-called “differential pricing” for web traffic.

India had been by far the largest among more than 30 countries where the company had offered stripped-down access to websites including Facebook and BBC News to customers of Reliance Communications for no charge.

Critics, including several local tech entrepreneurs, attacked the plan as a brazen attempt by Facebook to act as gatekeeper to the internet as tens of millions of new users come online for the first time.

But Mr Andreessen — who goes by the handle @pmarca on Twitter — lambasted India’s move in a sequence of postings on Tuesday evening.

“Denying world’s poorest free partial Internet connectivity when today they have none, for ideological reasons, strikes me as morally wrong,” he said. “Another in a long line of economically suicidal decisions made by the Indian government against its own citizens.”

In reply to another Twitter user, Mr Andreessen added: “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”

In India, an outcry quickly followed.

“Sickening from @facebook bm @pmarca mocking our country’s history, freedom struggle & rebuilding process. Ignorant,” tweeted Mohammad Salim, an Indian politician. “To mock our history, our legacy is not only insensitive, but downright shameless. Shame on @pmarca! Shame on @facebook!”

Mr Andreessen deleted the tweet and on Wednesday apologised for what he described as his “ill-informed and ill-advised” comments. That did not stop Mr Zuckerberg from distancing himself and his company from the remarks.

Mr Zuckerberg said in a post to his Facebook page that he “found the comments deeply upsetting, and they do not represent the way Facebook or I think at all”.

“Facebook stands for helping to connect people and giving them voice to shape their own future,” Mr Zuckerberg wrote. “But to shape the future we need to understand the past.”

Some commenters responding to Mr Zuckerberg’s post called for Mr Andreessen to step down from Facebook’s board.

Mr Andreessen was appointed to Facebook’s board in 2008, joining Mr Zuckerberg, Jim Breyer of Accel Partners and Founders Fund’s Peter Thiel. Today he is one of eight directors, including Netflix chief Reed Hastings and WhatsApp founder Jan Koum. Last November, Mr Andreessen sold about 15 per cent of his Facebook stake in a series of planned transactions, making $32m.

In its annual report two weeks ago, Facebook singled out India as one of its fastest growing markets in the world. “Users in India, the United States, and Brazil represented key sources of growth in 2015,” Facebook said, without disclosing detailed figures.

Yet the social network faces growing competition from local companies including chat app Hike, which offers direct messaging between smartphones that incurs no mobile data charges. Hike, a joint venture between Indian operator Bharti Airtel and Japan’s SoftBank, has about 100m users globally.

Last June, Facebook said it had 125m monthly active users in India, almost all of them using mobile devices. That represented roughly 8 per cent of its total userbase at the time. Facebook has offices in Mumbai, New Delhi, Hyderabad and Guragon.

Mr Andreessen is well-known in Silicon Valley for being outspoken on Twitter but on Wednesday he conceded that he had overstepped the mark.

“To be clear, I am 100 per cent opposed to colonialism, and 100 per cent in favour of independence and freedom, in any country, including India,” he tweeted. “I apologise for any offence my comment caused, and withdraw it in full and without reservation. I will leave all future commentary on all of these topics to people with more knowledge and experience than me.”

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