THE WINNERS

The lawyers, techies, and comedians who fought Facebook to keep India’s internet free and open

Quartz india
Quartz india

This post has been updated.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) floats consultation papers every now and then, but most Indians don’t know about these documents—or just don’t care. Last December, however, one such paper sparked a furious public debate.

In the consultation paper (pdf), TRAI asked if telecom service providers should be allowed to price data services differentially based on content. It received a record number of responses—1.83 million until Jan. 01, to be precise—according to TRAI chairman R S Sharma.

Eventually, it turned out to be a rare case of public involvement that helped shape a policy decision in India. On Feb. 08, TRAI barred differential pricing for internet services in the country, sealing the months-long debate and killing Facebook’s plans for Free Basics—a free but limited internet service—in India.

But such massive public response didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It was the result of a concerted campaign by a group of activists who want to keep India’s internet free and open at any cost. From setting up a website—called savetheinternet.in—to making YouTube videos, these crusaders spent months creating awareness about net neutrality in India.

Here are some who influenced the decision, and were at the forefront of India’s #SaveTheInternet movement:

Nikhil Pahwa: In March 2015, TRAI published a document called “Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for over-the-top services,” after which the net neutrality debate picked up pace in India. At the same time, Pahwa—the founder of news website Medianama—began mobilising support, and eventually became one of the key figures in India’s net neutrality movement.

“Pahwa essentially used all the contacts that he had of people who he thought had done good work in the past and asked them to join the campaign,” Kiran Jonnalagadda, a net neutrality activist and founder of HasGeek, a platform for technology events and hangouts, told Quartz.

Pahwa could not be contacted for the article. He is in the US currently to speak about the net neutrality debate at Columbia University, New York, on Feb. 10.

As the news about TRAI’s verdict broke in India on the evening of Feb. 08, Twitter was full of congratulatory messages for Pahwa, a testimony to his involvement with India’s #SaveTheInternet movement.

Vijay Shekhar Sharma: Digital payments startup Paytm was initially a part of Facebook’s Free Basics initiative. However, in April 2015, the company pulled out of it. Since then, Sharma, Paytm’s founder and CEO, has become one of the loudest voices in support of net neutrality.

In an interview with Quartz in December 2015, Sharma said he felt “choked” during one of his recent trips to China. He dreaded such a regime in India. “Twitter and Facebook were blocked in China and I had to create a Microsoft account to send emails and tell everyone to forward important emails to me on that new ID,” he said.

Sharma could have potentially benefited from Free Basics as it would have eliminated any new competition, but chose not to. “God is kind that we are among the lucky ones who can be a part of such an initiative. But what if we were not? We exist today because when we started the internet in India was neutral and free. How can we support something that kills the neutrality of the internet now?” he explained.

Besides talking about net neutrality in his interviews, Sharma was one of the leading voices on Twitter.

Sharma was also among those who received a phone call from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg requesting him to rethink his anti- Free Basics stand. “He was trying to tell me that I should talk less about this thing. I said that what you do not know is that these telecom operators want to block everybody who is making them lose their business,” Sharma told Business Insider.

Kiran Jonnalagadda: Jonnalagadda started working as a net neutrality crusader in March 2015 after Pahwa reached out to him. The two, along with a handful of people, started what is now known as savetheinternet.in, which by now has over 100 volunteers.

“It’s fine to do charity. But don’t do it in a manner that removes agency from an individual. Ultimately, if an individual can’t make choices, there’s something wrong in what you’re proposing,” 37-year-old Jonnalagadda told Quartz, when asked about his views on Free Basics.

“It’s a pan-India movement. We have no central place to meet. In fact, most of us have never met each other. It’s entirely social media-based,” he added.

Known as @jackerhack on Twitter, Jonnalagadda says the microblogging website was of great help for the #SaveTheInternet campaign. “It’s where most of our ideas get exposed to the public world, where we engage in debates,” he said.

Apar Gupta: A lawyer by profession, Gupta advised savetheinternet.in about the legal and policy implications of their campaign. He drafted the responses in support of net neutrality, which could be then sent to TRAI through savetheinternet.in. Gupta, along with some others, also appeared before the standing committee of the parliament and gave testimony.

“I have followed the net neutrality debate in the US, and it was just a matter of time for it to come to India,” Gupta told Quartz. “The challenge (during the course of consultation in India) was in terms of getting people interested and keeping them invested in this discussion. The threat comes when people start losing interest and don’t feel a sense of investment in the issue itself. That didn’t happen and I feel that has been the main victory of this campaign.”

All India Bakchod: The comedy group, with a massive following among Indian youth, played a vital role in reaching out to the masses with videos that explained the whole net neutrality debate. All India Bakchod (AIB) published its first video in April 2015, followed it up with another one in August 2015 and made a third video last December.

The four-member collective was brought on board by Pahwa to ensure that people submit responses to TRAI. “Their loyal following, including many celebrities with massive fan followings of their own, in turn linked to the AIB video, widening the campaign’s reach,” the savetheinternet.in blog explained.

Mishi Choudhary: She is executive director, Software Freedom Law Center, which provides legal representation and related services to not-for-profit developers. Choudhary, too, became part of the movement through Pahwa. “When the paper first came out, Nikhil [Pahwa] called me and asked if I had seen it, and I had. So we got together at coffee shops initially and discussed the paper,” Choudhary told Quartz from New York.

She was also involved in conversations with parliamentarians and worked to bring in more volunteers, she said.

“I personally am a volunteer with savetheinternet.in, but my organisation also participated in the consultation process right from the first paper on over-the-top services in March 2015,” she said.

Choudhary wrote several articles for Indian websites and newspapers on the various aspects of Free Basics, such as privacy and the idea of taking Indians’ navigational data and calling it charity.

“The European Union and the US are only now waking up to the issues of zero ratings so they have a thing or two to learn from us,” she told Quartz.

Now, she and Pahwa plan to meet in New York to celebrate this victory.

Update: The post has been updated with a section on Apar Gupta. Also, an earlier version of this post incorrectly named the organisation as savetheinternet.org instead of savetheinternet.in.

Also read: Sorry Facebook: India has decided to remain a land of free and open internet

Why TRAI backed net neutrality—and killed Facebook’s Free Basics in India

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