How India saved the Internet

A monumental victory for net neutrality and digital rights was won last month — but it wasn’t in the United States or any other Internet-saturated Western country where the issue has typically come to light. This victory, which safeguards the open Internet for millions of people, was won in India — a nation where just 19 percent of the population is online. The activists behind this victory — a coalition of  journalists, lawyers, hackers and everyday citizens — successfully pivoted grassroots online organizing against the hefty budgets and brute force clicktivism of none other than Facebook, social media’s most powerful corporation.

For several months, this coalition of Indian Internet activists — organized under the banner of Save The Internet — toiled over public consultation papers and distilled policy jargon into understandable language. Members of the Free Software Movement of India also organized an estimated 30 protests, including one outside of Facebook’s office in Hyderabad. It was all part of a viral Internet campaign to explain why the seemingly wonky tech term net neutrality matters to a country with so many other pressing concerns.

At the center of the controversy was Free Basics — a program developed by Facebook that aims to bring greater Internet connectivity to developing countries. Despite such lofty ambitions, Free Basics has attracted the ire of activists around the world who say it condemns its users to a digital ghetto by violating net neutrality with a practice called zero rating, or “differential pricing,” which limits access to a select set of websites pre-approved by Facebook. For those using Free Basics — already launched in 37 other countries — the Internet is not the Web as we know it, but rather, as some critics have called it, “the Internet by Facebook.”

Zero rating allows users to access some websites without cost to their data plan. Facebook proposed using this zero rating practice to deliver its Free Basics service without cost to its users. As Facebook’s Vice President of Global Communications Michael Buckley explains it, “I show you what the Internet is on Free Basics, it makes you more interested in the content there, and at that point you say, ‘You know what? I’m willing to spend a portion of my $11-a-month family budget on telecommunication services.’”

The activists who had gathered from all across India — and in some cases, from around the world — to block Free Basics from operating in India were emblematic of the very diverse and interconnected ecosystem they were trying to save. Comedians, lawyers and journalists teamed up with techies, web developers and Internet activists to “just say no” to an enterprise that threatened to splinter the open web into an amalgam of corporate estates.

In various town hall meetings and op-eds, Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg argued that zero rating was the best way to bring “digital equality” to the 80 percent of India’s population that did not yet have Internet access, and that to oppose such a program would be to sit atop an ivory tower and condemn the majority of the country’s population to the dark ages of zero connectivity. For many of the activists, this was the embodiment of the white savior complex — masquerading its for-profit motivations in order to force the country to choose between the false dichotomy of either net neutrality or digital equality.

Yet, an unprecedented amount of digital activists called Zuckerberg’s bluff and began to organize.

“I was in a state of panic,” said activist-journalist Nikhil Pahwa. When he first saw the white paper released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or TRAI, introducing the public consultation process, his reaction was “We’re screwed.” The consultation paper, as it was written, seemed to regard zero rating as an inevitability — simply questioning when and how it should be implemented, not whether it should be implemented.

As with net neutrality or other technical issues of great socio-political significance, India faces a similar problem to the United States: In the age of cat memes and cynicism, getting people to care is always going to be an uphill battle. Yet for Pahwa — for whom the memory of another well-worn battle for Internet freedom was still hot on his mind — the risk was too great not to organize.

Two days before the consultation paper came out, Pahwa and a group of activists had won a big victory in the Indian Supreme Court over a section of the India’s Information Technology Act that had been used on several occasions to curtail freedom of expression online and prosecute people on sedition and criminal defamation charges.

For Pahwa, the memory of the several years of litigation it took to strike that law down was the only provocation he needed to galvanize a small core team of activists to fight for net neutrality in India.

“I called up a lawyer friend for help,” Pahwa said, referring to Apar Gupta, who he worked with on the Supreme Court case. “I told him we need to get on this because it’s going to get very bad.”

Working in different professions, the two found themselves united by a common cause once again and were soon joined by Amba Kak, a lawyer who studied zero rating policies as part of her masters thesis at the Oxford Internet Institute. She found the practice’s basic utility questionable — particularly when compared to the more measurable and significant economic value users gain from the open Internet.

Armed with a team of lawyers to handle the policy side, Pahwa now needed a team to handle the public campaign. For this he turned to hacker collective @HasGeek’s founder Kiran Jonnalagadda, who was responsible for developing Save The Internet’s website and streamlining it into a tool for educating people on the issue of net neutrality. As the movement grew organically, web developers and Internet activists joined from across the country, including Mitesh Ashar, a Kolkata-based web developer who joined the team as the movement began to gain momentum.

“We realized we did a lot of simple and crazy things that helped us galvanize that many people,” Pahwa said. The campaign’s ethos was that of many heads working together for a singular goal, enabled by the messaging tool Slack, which is used by teams as diverse as grassroots activists to the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that put the rover on Mars.

As Save The Internet’s primary mode of communication, Slack became the means for containing the chaos of organizing, while maintaining the normalcy of their everyday livelihoods — a firm barrier between their online and offline worlds. In the real world they were students, lawyers, journalists or web developers, but on Slack, they were frantic members of a grassroots initiative aiming to counteract a massive propaganda campaign against the open Internet by social media’s biggest corporation.

Yet, Pahwa — who knows the mundanity of net neutrality policy quite intimately — realized that something was missing. Having seen the massively viral and influential video on net neutrality produced by British-American comedian John Oliver for his HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” Pahwa came to think: “The only way to reach the masses in India was to use an influential comedy troupe.” So, he turned to All India Bakchod, a popular social commentary comedy group on YouTube, whose name roughly translates to All India Senseless Fucks.

The troupe had previously tackled issues like sexual violence and the country’s fraught relationship with neighboring Pakistan, as well as India’s temporary ban on pornography. At Pahwa’s urging, they made a three-episode YouTube series titled “Save the Internet,” as an explainer on the net neutrality debate in India.

When asked whether Free Basics violated net neutrality, Facebook’s Mike Buckley said “Absolutely not.” However, he went on to acknowledge that “there is some gray area.”  Ultimately, his, and Facebook’s argument is: “If you take [net neutrality] to an extreme definition you may never let in any program that might potentially help people.”

It was precisely this gray area that made the net neutrality conversation in India so difficult. In a country where only a fifth of the population has access to the Internet, Free Basics provided an alluring promise. This promise manifested itself in town hall meetings hosted by Mark Zuckerberg at the Indian Institute of Technology, an op-ed by Zuckerberg in The Times of India and, a clicktivism campaign titled “Save Free Basics” where Facebook prompted Indian — and more controversially — American users of the social network to send a message to TRAI, urging them to save Free Basics. (Facebook has since stated the company “accidentally” enabled the notification for American users.)

Additionally, Facebook launched an estimated multi-million-dollar advertising campaign that spanned newspapers, televisions, billboards and movie theaters across the country. “It got ridiculous,” Jonnalagadda said, “to the point where the first four pages were Facebook advertisements, and on the fifth page, you finally got the news.”

Facebook’s response was a clear flex of its Goliath-esque muscles. Facebook claimed that more than 16 million people responded to TRAI’s consultation questions on behalf of Free Basics. However, due to the fact that a majority of Facebook’s responses neglected to answer TRAI’s public consultation questions, and overwhelmed the process with its sheer number of responses, the regulator was forced to extend the deadline for public commentary.

Facebook’s template response read: “To the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, I support digital equality for India … With one billion Indian people not yet connected, shutting down Free Basics would hurt our country’s most vulnerable people. I support Free Basics — and digital equality for India.”

It is not difficult to see why 16 million people would click on the campaign, given Facebook’s decision to use the rather vague term “digital equality” instead of net neutrality. Yet, Facebook seemed to have fundamentally misunderstood the point of the public consultation process, and TRAI eventually only accepted 1.6 million responses from the company.

Meanwhile, Save The Internet received an unexpected amount of responses, with more than a million people responding to TRAI by using savetheinternet.in as a means to educate themselves and respond to TRAI’s questions.

Unlike Facebook’s simple clicktivism campaign, Pahwa wanted to “give ownership of the campaign to the people.” To this end, Save The Internet chose to have users open the template response in their own email client, encouraging them to change and edit their response as they saw fit.

“The most important aspect is to get as much information as possible, and to treat people with respect,” Pahwa explained. “It’s better to help every individual because you never know how people will become useful to your movement.” The team also engaged with people in a Q&A session using Google Docs, often referring to the savetheinternet.in pages that contained the answers.

According to Pahwa, this collaboration and openness was essential to growing their Slack team and campaign. The campaign, despite the banality of net neutrality, drew many people out of the woodwork. “We constantly saw friends who were cynical because they had never seen something succeed before,” Pahwa said. “But because we were relentless — there was a sense of purpose — they got converted and started helping. It was never about egos. It was a collective effort.”

In the end, Pahwa’s campaign proved more effective. “Consultation papers are not opinion polls,” TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma told The Hindu. “We expect the stakeholders who participate to provide meaningful inputs.”

Facebook’s campaign and Save The Internet’s response highlighted Internet activism at its best and worst. On one hand, clicktivism can be used — as Facebook used it — to mobilize a user base for a seemingly righteous cause while simultaneously reducing debate to the sums of “likes” and “favorites.” On the other hand, it can be used — as with Save The Internet’s approach — to open debate and conversation across physical boundaries on the principle freedoms of the Internet.

Yet, for Facebook, the unique conditions of the debate in the developing world — namely the fact that it not only included questions of the open Internet, but also how people who don’t have access can access the Internet — was its strongest allure. “Digital equality,” if anything, sounds a lot more noble than “net neutrality,” but its underlying premise is worth questioning.

“Arguably, Facebook is creating an uneven playing field” said Kak, the lawyer who studied zero rating. “We need to ask questions like, ‘On a zero-rated platform would you get access to video and images?’ If not, how would that affect people who are illiterate or not tech savvy from deriving value from the Internet?” She sees the openness of the Internet as essential to developing local content and maintaining a competitive and healthy Internet ecosystem. According to Kak, there are many questions left unanswered, but she is happy that India has taken a pro-active approach to discovering its own net neutrality regulations.

Similarly, Jeremy Malcolm, a global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, finds Facebook’s gatekeeper role in Free Basics incredibly troublesome. “There are better solutions to the access problem,” he said.

When interrogating Facebook’s motivations further, it isn’t hard to see why Free Basics is such a potentially lucrative venture. The company estimates that there are 138 million monthly active users in India, with 90 percent of these users accessing Facebook from mobile platforms. This makes Facebook’s users in India its second largest population after the United States. With a company that relies on its user base in order to derive profit, introducing such a large outstanding population to the Internet via Facebook means a huge long-term investment in its customer base.

By some estimates, in the fourth quarter of 2015, Facebook derived around $3 of revenue per user worldwide. Those dollars add up, especially if Facebook is synonymous with the Internet for 80 percent of a country’s population. As Buckley puts it, Facebook’s means for deriving profit from Free Basics is a “circuitous process.” On this point, Buckley is extremely direct, saying, “I don’t feel comfortable calling [Free Basics] pure philanthropy. I do feel comfortable calling it mission-centric.”

Nevertheless, Facebook’s stance on net neutrality in India may seem odd to those who remember its strong comments on net neutrality in response to the FCC’s plan to allow data-throttling in the United States. In 2010, Facebook’s then policy advisor Andrew Noyes said, “Facebook continues to support principles of net neutrality for both landline and wireless networks … Preserving an open Internet that is accessible to innovators — regardless of their size or wealth — will promote a vibrant and competitive marketplace where consumers have ultimate control over the content and services delivered through their Internet connections.”

Understanding why Facebook would change its stance on net neutrality in developing countries is a matter of understanding the geopolitics of the Web. In the United States, the alliance between activists working to preserve an open Internet and corporations working to preserve an open marketplace without preferential treatment by Internet service providers is an alliance of convenience. The same kind of affinity cannot carry over to India, where Silicon Valley companies stand to gain the most from a balkanized web.

“One thing to understand is that no company has an absolute stand,” said hacker-activist Kiran Jonnalagadda. “They do what’s good for them: Net neutrality is good for them in United States, but bad for them in India. You can’t assume companies will put their morals in front of their business.”

Free Basics runs the risk of creating a digital colony for Facebook in developing countries. That’s why Facebook board member and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s recent comments may have been the most authentic moment during the Free Basics campaign. Following the decision to block Free Basics in India, Andreessen tweeted, “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?” Zuckerberg then responded by calling the comments “deeply unsettling.”

This victory in India harkens back to a day of idealism on the Internet. “A lot of us have grown up with the fantastic ability of learning whatever we wanted on the Web,” said Save The Internet activist Mitesh Ashar. “The Web has been the most unbiased medium and did not ever ask me who I was or — for that matter — how I am accessing the Web, before giving me content. We have had the privilege of the open Internet. But should the new adopters of the Internet get access to an Internet potentially made by the propaganda of vested interests?” The clear answer delivered by TRAI on February 8 was a resounding “No.”

After a lengthy public consultation — where TRAI heard both sides of the argument — the regulatory authority ruled against discriminatory pricing, effectively ending zero rating in India and preventing a kind of splintering of the Internet into various corporate controlled spaces. Facebook released a statement saying it was “disappointed with the outcome,” but would continue its efforts with Free Basics in other countries.

What is apparent from the recent victory against Facebook is the country’s desire to enter the globalized sphere of the Internet without becoming a “digital colony” of a Silicon Valley corporation. While Save The Internet may not exactly see itself as an anti-colonial movement, it does seek to preserve a type of public commons that is symbolized by the Internet. “We are contributing to a global public commons,” Pahwa said. “We often end up viewing the users as consumers and that’s what Free Basics would do. It would convert users who are both creators and consumers into simply consumers. Our approach was that we needed to make sure that the public commons isn’t carved out for private use.”

The victory over Free Basics has also been an opportunity for Save The Internet to discuss and showcase alternative methods to increasing Internet access across India. And the ideas are about as diverse as the activists who propelled the group toward victory.

Jonnalagadda points towards Mozilla’s partnership with Grameenphone in Bangladesh to give data in exchange for watching an advertisement beforehand or domestic initiatives in Dharamshala, where AirJaldi — a wireless hotspot provider — has connected the entire village of Makhlorganj through Wi-Fi hotspots at public institutions.

Ashar, on the other hand, cites Jana, a Boston tech company looking to provide Internet access in developing countries without violating net neutrality. For Ashar, net neutrality is more important than whether the company providing the service is from India or abroad.

Others, such as Kiran Chandra — chairman of Swecha, a nonprofit connected to the Free Software Movement of India — point toward the FreedomBox: a personal server that runs a free software operating system and can be used for a variety of tasks, from encrypted communications to acting as a Wi-Fi router system. “When connected to a long range Wi-Fi antenna, it can distribute the Internet connection to a village,” Chandra said. “With help from village panchayats (leaders), Swecha set up FreedomBox to provide free Internet connections to people in four villages.”

However, the most politically provocative means of providing Internet access was proposed during the height of the net neutrality campaign in India. Its main proponents are Nandan Nilekani, the chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, and Viral Shah, a coder and author who led the design of the government’s subsidy program through Aadhar, a system that allows low-income Indians to use a unique biometric identity card to obtain benefits. As supporters of a subsidy program that already subsidizes grain, oil and other essential goods for lower-income populations, the two have suggested using the Aadhar system to provide data plans as well.

So long as balkanizing the open Internet remains a profitable venture, threats to the open Internet will always exist. Facebook has announced that it will continue pursuing Free Basics in other countries. Yet India points toward a model of connectivity that doesn’t compromise net neutrality and isn’t necessarily beholden to big tech companies.

The debate that unfolded in India shows that the battle for net neutrality across the globe will be as contiguous as the battle for digital privacy or freedom of speech before it. These struggles will often find themselves as intertwined as the maze of wires and tubes we’ve come to know as the Internet, and — at least in the case of Save The Internet — this interconnectedness may be its saving grace.

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