In August 5, 2014, within three months of the new Modi-led government coming into power, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) organised a seminar on regulatory framework for online services. TRAI had already been working on a discussion paper to better understand Over-The-Top (OTT) services, a term used by telecom operators to describe Internet services like WhatsApp, YouTube, etc. The telecom industry’s lobbying arm, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), had already listed out the industry’s five-point agenda for the new government, of which “revenue sharing agreements” with telecom operators was one.
Nikhil Pahwa, one of the chief activists for net neutrality who also runs the website MediaNama that has been covering the business of digital and telecom in India since 2008, tells me, “After reading the five-point agenda, I was sure that the issue of net neutrality would be cropping up in India very soon. What telecom companies were asking for was clearly against the basic principles of net neutrality.”
Essentially, companies who were providing you with Internet access wanted a share of the revenues web-based companies like Google were earning.
Facebook had earlier joined the COAI as an associate member and, on October 10 that year, Mark Zuckerberg met Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Zuckerberg had already made a pitch before the meeting to make the Internet free for the Indian masses. At a media interaction held later that day, Pahwa asked him questions on net neutrality, but they were ignored.
Airtel’s decision to charge more for VoIP services was vehemently opposed by consumers, many of whom took to social media to protest this move. MediaNama did a series of articles about this violation of net neutrality, while the newly launched website www.netneutrality.in asked consumers to raise their voice against Airtel’s move.
That same month, Kiran Jonnalagadda, founder of HasGeek–which describes itself as a company that creates discussion spaces for geeks–came to Delhi from Bengaluru. Kiran was on his way to Hillhacks, a yearly event in which some of the top tech minds of India come together in the valleys of Himachal Pradesh to talk about everything tech. Pahwa wanted to meet Jonnalagadda in Delhi to discuss with him the impeding threat to net neutrality. They couldn’t meet then, but since Pahwa was insistent, Jonnalagadda ended up inviting him to Hillhacks to talk about net neutrality. On Diwali night in 2014, Nikhil gave a first-of-its-kind talk about net neutrality at Hillhacks. Some agreed with what he had to say, some disagreed and most were not willing to decide so quickly.
Two months later, in December 2014, Airtel changed its service terms for 2G and 3G data packs. It asked its customers to pay more for making voice calls through apps like WhatsApp, Skype, etc. Voice over Internet data (VoIP)–which allows you to use the Internet to make calls–was excluded from the set amount of free data a customer would get. A standard data charge of `0.04 per 10 KB for 3G services and ₹0.10 per 10 KB (more than ₹10,000 for 1 GB) for 2G services was levied on all VoIP services. Days after this, the company announced new exclusive VoIP packs at ₹75 for 75 MB with a validity of 28 days.
The war for net neutrality had been declared in the public domain at last. Airtel’s decision to charge more for VoIP services was vehemently opposed by consumers, many of whom took to social media to protest this move. MediaNama did a series of articles about this violation of net neutrality, while a call on the newly launched website www.netneutrality.in asked consumers to raise their voice against Airtel’s move.
TRAI Chairman Rahul Khullar went on record to say that the move was not illegal since it was not under the ambit of any policy. “What the company plans to do is certainly not in conformity with net neutrality. But one cannot today say the move is illegal as there’s no policy either by the government that net neutrality is our principle or a regulatory framework put in place by the regulator.” TRAI, however, said they would release a consultation paper on the issue to the public for feedback. Airtel withdrew the plan.
Net neutrality had finally reached the mainstream, with the media highlighting the lack of any policy around it, and what it meant for Internet users. Pahwa had been participating in TRAI consultations since 2008 and had an insight into the issues that could be raised. So, by January 2015, he had started to work on the questions he thought TRAI would ask if they released a consultation paper. What worried him, however, was that, historically, TRAI had been pro-telecom companies.
The net neutrality movement was growing, and there were three basic principles around which all arguments coalesced:
1) That all sites must be equally accessible: ISPs and telecom operators cannot block certain sites or apps if they don’t pay them.
2) That all sites must be accessible at the same speed (at an ISP level): ISPs cannot increase the speed of certain sites because of prior deals. More importantly, it meant ISPs could not slow down sites either.
3) That the cost of access for all sites must be the same (per KB/MB or as per data plan): This means no “Zero Rating” – that is, providing customers one application or platform free of cost over the other. (In countries like India, net neutrality is more about cost of access than speed of access, because, well, we don’t have fast and slow lanes: All our lanes are slow.)
On 10 February 2015, Facebook launched its now infamous Internet.org in partnership with Reliance Communications. Through the Internet.org app, Reliance users from six Indian states – Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Telangana –got free access to 38 websites. It sounded fine on paper, but the catch was the websites that made up this list of 38, as listed by a Facebook press release on February 10. For example, Bing was the only search engine available, and Timesjobs and Babajob –a website very few have heard of – were the only job portals. But since the service was free, millions of users would then start using these sites, and the commercial value of these sites
would grow exponentially. Also, the fact that only Reliance was the service provider for Internet.org meant that people would start switching network providers just to get free basic Internet access.
Meanwhile, in the US, the FCC ruled for an open Internet in February 2015, a ruling that was impacted by around 4 million Americans who “spoke up in favor of preserving a free and open Internet”, which further mobilized the movement in India.
On March 27, TRAI released a consultation paper on net neutrality spread across 118 pages, three days after the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act, which allowed the police to arrest people for posting “offensive content” on the Internet, an act that had been misused on multiple occasions. Few could have suspected the kind of impact a document sounding as banal as “Consultation Paper on OTT Services and Net Neutrality for Public Feedback” would have on deciding the future of Internet accessibility in India. The document sought views of the public through 20 questions, and one could send in their responses to TRAI at firstname.lastname@example.org before April 24.
Pahwa then began to think about how public opinion could be mobilised for net neutrality. He was aware that if people made their voices heard, it could force policy makers to take the consumer’s side in this battle between big telcos and Internet users. He started to reach out to friends and activists he knew. A small team came together and the first task these people had was to simplify the 118-page consultation paper released by TRAI. They put the document on a Google drive and around 17 people divided pages among themselves to help simplify the document.
The team arrived at the conclusion that emails would be the right way to respond to the consultation paper. As Pahwa says, “[We] started with an initial target of 10 to 15 thousand emails. We knew that many emails were enough to make an impact.” Taking inspiration from John Oliver’s espousal of the net neutrality cause, the team also decided to bring on board the comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB). Jonnalagadda took on the responsibility of putting together another website, savetheinternet.in, and he, along with an engineer called Aravind R. S., and other volunteers started work on that.
Just ten days after the consultation paper was released, Airtel announced its “Zero” scheme, where users would get free access to certain apps and services from companies that had signed up for it. App developers and companies were supposed to pay Airtel a fixed fee for the cost of the data transfer incurred while using their services. Airtel did not reveal the names of the apps that were already part of the platform, nor did it inform the public about the nature of agreements or fees that developers would need to pay to sign up for the platform.
According to a report by MediaNama, however, Flipkart had signed up for the Zero platform and was paying the operator `1,000 per GB of data as part of the deal. Initially, both Airtel and Flipkart refused to comment on the tie-up. What escalated the issue was Flipkart CEO Sachin Bansal’s tweet on “Airtel Zero”. In a statement that pretty much confirmed his espousal of the Zero platform, he said, “When foreign companies do it in India – Innovation. Indians do it –Violation. #NetNeutralityDiscrimination?”
The tweet drew flak from users across the board, and began a social media storm. It unleashed the most effective weapon that consumers had, with thousands of tweets declaring “Will never buy again from Flipkart”. Driven primarily by Reddit and Twitter users, people started to leave negative reviews for the Flipkart app on the Google Play Store, giving it the lowest rating possible. Most negative reviews were motivated by the founder’s statement on net neutrality. Activists, however, have told me that they considered such a move Internet bullying.
Facing so much negative publicity on the Internet, Bansal followed up with a series of tweets in which he clarified that although he supported net neutrality, he didn’t think the Airtel Zero initiative went against its principles. His tweets said: “I’m for #NetNeutrality. I spend time/money helping startups in india [sic]. Will never support things which suffocate innovation… 0 rated apps for limited time doesn’t go against #NetNeutrality. Costs/competition are very high. Can’t be sustained for long… 0rating [sic] only reduces data costs for users. Fears of a telecom big brother emerging are unfounded. Choice wins. Always.”
As lucrative as “Airtel Zero” sounded to Bansal, the very idea that some who couldn’t afford to pay Airtel a fee would be at a disadvantage (especially small companies and start-ups) went against the very principle of net neutrality and ensured that there would be no healthy competition.
Meanwhile, the net neutrality team had made progress on several fronts. Apar Gupta and Raman Chima, both lawyers, had helped prepare the answers to the questions TRAI had asked. Pahwa was working on simplifying the answers for the general audience and had also reached out to Gursimran Khamba, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya of AIB to work together on a script for a video message. Jonnalagadda and
Aravind R. S. were putting the website together. They developed a code that made an email client pop up with a pre-filled subject and body—the answers that the team had prepared for the consultation—with the click of a button. They also decided that it would be more democratic if the users were given an option to modify the email; it would also help override spam filters.
Several iterations of the reply text were also made available. The team started to reach out to various influencers, politicians and tech communities across India to talk to them about net neutrality.
A 22-page summary of the TRAI document was put online and shared. The 22-page document was simple, unbiased and written with the general public in mind; even those on the opposite side of the movement, like an ex-CEO of Airtel, publicly congratulated the team for the effort. A frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) document was also drawn up as a Google doc (document), where users with queries could be replied to. A separate document where anti-net neutrality arguments were collated was also put up and the two documents were interlinked. The very fact that the team did not block anti-net neutrality arguments spoke volumes about their intent. As Pahwa puts it, “Philosophically, it was exciting to let even the anti-net neutrality arguments find a space.’
The Google doc made it to mainstream media, and became a hub on the Internet where both pro- and anti-net neutrality folks came together. Headstart, the largest network of early stage start-ups in India, invited net neutrality activists to address the Headstart Startup Saturday events on April 11, 2015.
Prominent politicians from across party lines also came forward to support the cause, such as Rajeev Chandrasekhar of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Baijayant Jay Panda of the Biju Janta Dal (BJD), Digvijaya Singh of the Congress and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
On April 11, 2015, while six members of the net neutrality team were speaking at six different Headstart Startup Saturday events across India, AIB uploaded a video titled “Save The Internet”, and urged people to mail TRAI demanding net neutrality through the savetheInternet.in website. The website also became live at the same time as the video. The entire issue of net neutrality had been summarised into just three words: ‘Save the Internet’. It was an extraordinary call to the public.
The campaigners for net neutrality were successful at simplifying this complex issue for the general public. AIB’s video, for instance, compared net neutrality with an entry to a children’s park where kids are charged for each ride they take. The AIB video was retweeted widely on Twitter, with celebrity influencers such as Shah Rukh Khan, Farhan Akhtar and Alia Bhatt also sharing it.
Within 48 hours, the video had received more than 4,00,000 views. On April 12, the video was blocked on Facebook pages for around 20 minutes due to unusually high activity. However, Facebook acted swiftly to restore it after several complaints surfaced. The video eventually went on to rack up more than 3.7 million views.
The savetheinternet.in website had a form through which people could reply to TRAI’s consultation paper with minimum clicks. This gave the general public an easy way to reply to the 20 questions asked in the consultation paper. Simple graphics that conveyed the core message were shared across all platforms and website admins were urged to display the following banner on their websites: The Internet had come together to save itself!
On April 14, after the user backlash and support for net neutrality from politicians, Flipkart withdrew from Airtel Zero. “We will be walking away from the discussions with Airtel for Airtel Zero,” it said in a press statement. But Flipkart’s withdrawal was just the beginning. Soon there was pressure on other companies to withdraw from similar arrangements. Travel company Cleartrip was the first one to react to this drive and withdrew from the Internet.org programme. Times Internet followed suit a few hours later, and so did Prannoy Roy of NDTV.
However, Mark Zuckerberg defended Internet.org in Hindustan Times saying, “Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected… We will never prevent people accessing other services, and we will not use fast lanes.”
Soon afterwards COAI launched a campaign around net neutrality. Though the campaign claimed to be in favour of net neutrality, it also mixed in elements of zero rating in its messaging.
On April 24, the last date for replying to the TRAI consultation paper, the net neutrality team released a statement saying TRAI had received over a million emails in support of net neutrality by April 23. Pahwa says, “We achieved the 10,000 email mark within three hours of the launch. At that point we knew that TRAI would not be able to ignore this public sentiment.” This was the biggest ever response the country had seen for a campaign conducted solely on social media.
On April 27, TRAI did the unthinkable: It made public the email IDs of all of the people who had supported the campaign. A PDF file on its website displayed every email ID that had responded to the cause of net neutrality. TRAI had put these users at risk by exposing these email IDs to spammers.
Then something interesting happened: The TRAI website crashed. Anonymous India, a group of hackers associated with online hacktivist group Anonymous International, claimed responsibility.
Though TRAI called it a “technical snag in its system provided by the National Informatics Centre (NIC)…due to heavy traffic”, it sounded exactly like a DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attack, one that Anonymous is famous for.
On May 3, COAI released a statement saying 4 million mobile subscribers had supported COAI’s campaign for net neutrality—the fine print of which made it clear it wasn’t all about it—and that Internet-based communication services like WhatsApp and Skype could be subject to norms similar to those applying to mobile phone operators. It was a contradictory statement, as subjecting WhatsApp and Skype to norms that mobile phone operators are subject to goes against the basic principle of net neutrality.
In August 2015, TRAI began to take inputs on net neutrality through www.MyGov.in, where people had to register and then leave a comment on the Recommendations of the Committee on Net Neutrality. AIB made a second video promoting net neutrality, urging users to register on the website and write back to TRAI. Then, in October 2015, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, told people to “just say no” to initiatives like Facebook’s Internet.org because “programs like that are not the full Internet.”
After public feedback, TRAI decided to divide the consultations into three parts:
1) Zero Rating
2) Net Neutrality
3) Licensing of Internet business
On December 9, TRAI floated a new paper questioning differential data pricing for content services. The paper, titled “Consultation Paper on Differential Pricing for Data Services”, raised concerns over zero-rating platforms being offered by mobile operators in particular. The paper asked for comments on whether such differential pricing should be allowed. The paper said that while zero-rating might help accelerate the rate of Internet access in the country, they also put small content providers at a disadvantage. TRAI’s paper also stated that zero-rating apps created “entry barriers” and a “non-level playing field for these players”. It asked whether these platforms could end up acting as gatekeepers of the Internet, stifling innovation and access to smaller websites that are unable to join these platforms.
Stakeholders were expected to post their comments on the paper by December 30 and counter-comments were to be submitted by January 7, 2016.
Meanwhile, Facebook, along with Reliance, released another zero-rating platform similar to Internet.org in December called “Free Basics”, providing access to a host of Internet services like Wikipedia, BBC, some health sites and weather reports. The problem with Free Basics was that it was not an open platform. Although anyone could put an app on it, Facebook reserved the right to approve or reject any service that signed up for it, thus giving itself and its partners a competitive advantage.
Facebook promoted Free Basics through full-page advertisements in all newspapers as well as plastering ads for it on billboards across metros. It also began to leverage the strength of its 125 million-plus users to promote Free Basics on its own platform. Indian users who logged on to Facebook from December 17 onwards started getting notifications from their friends urging them to send a message to TRAI “in support of digital equality in India”.
The messages led to a page that outlined a detailed letter to TRAI. While the first paragraph talked about sending the letter to TRAI, as one kept reading, it called out net neutrality activists for opposing Free Basics. One of the paragraphs read, “However, Free Basics is in danger in India. A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality. Instead of giving people access to some basic Internet services for free, they demand that people pay equally to access all Internet services, even if that means 1 billion people can’t afford to access any services.”
What Facebook was calling a “small, vocal group of critics” had, in fact, managed to mobilise the public to send over a million emails supporting net neutrality in India. This message showed Facebook was desperate to ensure “Free Basics” survived the upcoming TRAI regulations. However, Facebook’s ploy to get users to support its Free Basics campaign didn’t catch people’s imagination as net neutrality had. People began to post public messages complaining about the campaign.
A week after its launch, India’s star Internet entrepreneurs such as Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and chief executive of Paytm, and Dippak Khurana of Vserv, joined the crusade for a free Internet. Sharma launched a scathing attack on Facebook’s campaign, saying that India’s digital independence was being threatened by the world’s largest social network. On December 24, AIB released another video outlining the problems with this zero-rating app and asking people to email TRAI. The video described how the Free Basics platform violated net neutrality. AIB reiterated that Free Basics was still functioning on the same principles as Internet.org. This video, too, went viral and crossed the 1 million mark.
TRAI asked Reliance to shut down the Free Basics campaign till it concluded whether the platform violated net neutrality or not. However, Facebook continued its campaign, pulling out all stops. A report claimed that Facebook spent close to ₹300 crore on the campaign in India. The report by Mint estimated that of the ₹300 crore, ₹180– ₹200 crore were spent on print ads alone.
In the first week of January 2016, TRAI rejected the 14 lakh messages sent by people supporting Free Basics, saying it did not include answers to specific questions asked in its second consultation paper.
In December 2015, TRAI blocked the Free Basics service as part of a ruling that supported net neutrality. The decision came after nearly a year of constant conflict between Facebook, telecom companies and net neutrality activists. Finally, on February 8, 2016, TRAI barred telecom service providers from charging differential rates for data services, one of the goals of net neutrality activists.