How Zuckerberg got the blues

The campaign to save the Internet was led by many ordinary citizens. A thank-you note

February 11, 2016 01:45 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Success has many parents. And now that the Save the Internet campaign has got a happy ending, there is no doubt that many will clamour for a share of the credit. And they would not be wrong, for it was a campaign of, by and for people like you and me, ordinary citizens.

That said, there are some names that rise a little higher from the crowd. (What follows assumes you have followed the net neutrality versus zero-rating debate in these pages and elsewhere.)

One of them is the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Regulators and government bodies in general have not exactly been known for being au courant with technology and its advances, or for — gasp! — actually wanting to know what citizens think. Past heavy-handed efforts at censorship, such as back in 2006 when our government ordered the blocking of entire second-level domains when it meant to silence a few third-level sites, had India’s then fledgling social media world alternating between giggling at their cluelessness and screaming blue murder outrage about the loss of their precious blogging platforms.

Credit to TRAI

But, led in no small way by the Ministry of External Affairs, who were the first members of the babucracy to dip their official toes into the online world, India’s administrators are now very much a part of the social whirl. And TRAI, to its eternal (or until next week) credit, made a huge effort to reach out and make it if not the best possible public consultation, then at least a better consultation than has been done before. Writer Raghu Karnad made the point well in a Twitter discussion: “I don’t see a lot of kirana dukaanwalas [owners of small shops] being interviewed about FDI in retail.” If there’s one thing to take away from TRAI’s course of action during this debate, it is that I don’t think India’s Internet policy will be created from an ivory tower again. And while it could get better — reaching out in multiple Indian languages is one small example — it’s good to see India showing the rest of the world the progressive way ahead.

Sharing credit with TRAI is the Save the Internet coalition. (Disclosure: this writer helped with small parts of the group’s first campaign and was privy to its discussions and strategies.) This ragtag band, using nothing more than their brains, well augmented with legal knowledge, tech skills and social media smarts, changed the course of the debate and made sure that telecom providers and platforms like Facebook weren’t controlling the narrative. Possibly their biggest contribution to the discourse was the way they carefully studied TRAI’s questions and framed lucid replies that were also legally sound. The group frequently insists that it is a collective, and no individuals are heroes, so I will respect that and not name individuals. Those who were and are part of the group and have chosen to be identified can be found on the website.

AIB, a shot in the arm

A crucial amplifier of the net neutrality point of view was the comedy collective AIB. Those always irreverent young men have a huge and very influential following. So when they, taking a cue from American comic and host John Oliver, released a video that made the case for net neutrality, many celebrities shared it, and it got seen by a lot more people than the Save the Internet coalition could have reached on its own. AIB followed up their initial video in April last year with a couple of more videos later in the year, and each time their contribution shot adrenalin into the movement.

Another crucial ingredient was the support of the Indian start-up world. Vijay Shekhar of digital payments company Paytm set an example. Initially a supporter of zero rating (which privileges some chosen Internet sites over others by giving users free data to access them), he changed his mind and used his influence to reach out to others too. Eventually, several hundred entrepreneurs such as Nandan Nilekani stated their support for net neutrality. And politicians stuck their necks out too: Biju Janata Dal MPs Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda and T. Satpathy, and All India Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien. The CPI (M) passed a resolution last year opposing violations of net neutrality, with party leader Sitaram Yechury vocally supporting the concept. Even Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi spoke up, which was worrying for net neutrality supporters: in today’s polarised world, his stand could have meant National Democratic Alliance fans reflexively opposing whatever he said. News coverage abroad helped mould opinion too. Notable among the influencers was Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web but did not patent it so the world could benefit; when Sir TB-L speaks, people listen.

Have we forgotten anyone? Oh, yes. Facebook. The social media platform’s holier-than-wow advertising campaign and lobbying efforts to evangelise their FreeBasics offering, not to speak of their cack-handed effort to take a leaf out of the Save the Internet campaign’s book by asking their users to petition TRAI with a ready-made email (only neglecting to have their email text actually answer the questions TRAI had asked for responses to) backfired rather spectacularly. So, thank you, Mark Zuckerberg. Here’s a nice blue thumbs up for you.

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