FB campaign runs into Net Neutrality activists

FB campaign runs into Net Neutrality activists
Mark Zuckerberg might have thought it an easy job with his pet theme “something is better than nothing,” but he ran into a wall in India. Net neutrality activists were not an easy wall to break, he found out in the course of a few months. As the battle on Free Basics reached the climax, Zuckerberg wore the boxing gloves. He made a passionate plea through an edit piece and rang up influential players to convince the doubting Thomases. As the protest grew shriller, he loosened his purse strings for a high-decibel advertisement campaign, some say it is worth Rs 100 crore. Still, the going appears tough for the Facebook founder.

Couple of months before Free Basics entered India in February through a tie-up between Facebook and Reliance Communications, the foundation for a prolonged battle for ensuring Net Neutrality had started. In December, Net Neutrality activists had started their campaign against reports about Airtel planning to delink services like Skype from the data plan and to charge separately. Members of social media platform Reddit started a discussion on Net Neutrality soon and it spread like a wild fire linking those who strongly felt for the principle. A number of professionals, with their domain knowledge and communication skills, joined together online in cities. Nikhil Pahwa of MediaNama and Kiran Jonnalagadda, co-founder of HasGeek, were among the several people who gave direction to the movement. A comedy collective, All India Backchod (AIB), later gave an impetus to the movement with a nine-minute video.

Many found reason in their arguments and they first drew blood when their campaign forced companies like Flipkart to come out of Airtel Zero, which they accused of violating Net Neutrality. Meanwhile, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) received about a million emails from people demanding Net Neutrality for its consultation paper. The stage was set for other battles, too, and the base was already set to take on Free Basics. By then an online platform, savetheinternet.in, was ready, while other internet freedom organisations, too, started a campaign.

For activists, the name Internet.org itself was problematic. They felt users would think that they are on the Internet, while they were actually on a product designed by Facebook. As the campaign against the programme took shape, Facebook chose to change Internet.org to Free Basics. It even invited a handful of Indian journalists to its Menlo Park headquarters in California to explain its position.

Online protests
Activists felt that Facebook was limiting access to the Internet. But the biggest protest came online as activists networked through the Internet to build one of the biggest online protests. While Zuckerberg was advocating that the programme was trying to give some connectivity to the have-nots, the activists said “some connectivity” itself is the problem and it was “not same as full connectivity”. The choice for the users of Free Basics was limited and it went against the spirit of Net Neutrality where all data was considered equal. Jonnalagadda called it “digital colonialism.” Activists asked, why can’t free data be given to the have-nots who can use it to surf website of their choice? Or, why can’t Facebook encourage mobile operators to lower data charges to make it accessible to the unconnected?

Facebook was acting as a “gatekeeper” on whom to allow entry inside the network, the activists said. Start-up guys, too, had a problem. They felt the platform was not providing a level-playing field for them to compete with corporates. With Facebook deciding on whom to allow access, they said the success of Indian start-ups was a result of the open nature of Internet that permitted innovation without any entry barriers.

As the debate raged, professors at Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institute of Science also joined the debate against Facebook. Former UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani was also among those who raised questions about Free Basics. While online protests and campaigning was raging, there were street protests in Gachibowli, an IT suburb in Hyderabad. The Free Software Movement of India also organised such protests in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Facebook also did not sit back and relax. It ran newspaper advertisements, while urging Facebook users to send emails to Trai to lobby for its programme. The regulator was eliciting views on differential pricing and Net Neutrality. The social networking site, however, got a rude shock when Trai chairman R S Sharma was not convinced with lakhs of responses sent in favour of Free Basics using Facebook. Sharma said Trai was not running an opinion poll.

Free Basics supporters were just saying they support it but did not assign any reason for it, which the Trai chairman said was not helping him in anyway. The Net Neutrality activists were a step ahead. Their template, which a number of its supporters used, had reasons assigned why they were against differential pricing.

The Net Neutrality campaign highlights the fundamental issue. If there is no Internet freedom, one cannot dream of a campaign like the one against Free Basics or other initiatives as corporate interests can hamper such interactions. The question whether internet access would remain free will be answered soon with Trai being on the job.

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