Net Neutrality: How comedians, lawyers, techies, activists, and a million Indians saved internet freedom

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Updated: July 24, 2018 10:20:53 PM

When Rahul Khullar, the then TRAI chief, started defending interests of telcos and criticising the critics of net neutrality, Nikhil Pahwa realised that merely reporting on it was not enough.

Net Neutrality: How 1 reporter, 1 comedy group, 1 MP and a million Indians saved internet freedom in IndiaThe battle for internet freedom has been won but there’s still a need for more clarity, the story of Net Neutrality in India. (Image: Reuters)

It was called the ‘John Oliver effect’ when the host of late-night HBO series, Last Week Tonight, used his satirical wit to transform something extraordinarily boring called ‘net neutrality’ into a crowd-puller. The response to his show was unprecedented: The people of the United States flooded Federal Communications Commission (FCC) website with comments against the proposal to repeal net neutrality, leading to a crash. But, despite the response, net neutrality died in the United States on June 11, 2018 — about four years after it became a household subject.

Back home in India, in August 2014, a reporter was worried over developments taking place at a meeting called by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in the national capital. “It looked like they were pushing for content providers to get into revenue-sharing agreement with telecom companies,” recalled Nikhil Pahwa, a reporter-turned-activist, who later played an important role in India’s battle for the “strongest net neutrality regulations”.

That meeting was followed by the announcement of Facebook Free Basics and Airtel Zero plan, which threatened equal access to internet content and services. And, then, on March 27, 2015, TRAI issued a highly-technical 118-page-long consultation paper, proposing differential pricing for data services. “It meant that it was going to be the end of open internet in India,” Nikhil Pahwa told FE Online. That time India did not have any policy either for net neutrality or against it; the US had it but was hell-bent on repealing it.

Meanwhile, Airtel Zero, which allowed Airtel users to access Flipkart for no data charges, was being aggressively discussed on Reddit. This discussion caught the eye of Member of Parliament from Odisha Tathagata Satpathy, who vehemently supported net neutrality in a letter to TRAI. As this campaign gathered steam, Flipkart announced that it was exiting Airtel Zero.

When Rahul Khullar, the then TRAI chief, started defending interests of telcos and criticising the critics of net neutrality, Nikhil Pahwa realised that merely reporting on the issue was not enough. “I called up a bunch of lawyers to put together a response to TRAI consultation, reached out to comedy sketch group AIB to do a video, and asked some friends in Bangalore to put together a website” he added.

Soon, Nikhil Pahwa’s campaign to save the internet, which ran for almost a year, was joined by over 150 volunteers from different sections. The campaign was named SaveTheInternet. The volunteers created a simpler and shorter version of the TRAI consultation paper, and eventually launched, which helped the public submit responses to TRAI.

The campaign had three parts: The first part from March 27th 2015-April 24th 2015 was when the first TRAI consultation was held. What became India’s John Oliver moment was a video by AIB, explaining how the TRAI proposal was to kill the internet equality in India and why people of this country should care about it. Released almost two weeks before the deadline, the videos went viral and persuaded people to respond.  The website came in handy, which eventually facilitated 1.2 million emails to the TRAI. This marked the beginning of the shaping of net neutrality rules in India.

The second part was between May 2015 and December 2015, when there was a DoT consultation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Facebook campus, and a Parliamentary Standing Committee deposition. Two more AIB videos were released during this period.

The third part of the campaign came in December 2015. “The TRAI, under a new chief, restarted the consultation, and we launched all over again, in response to new questions in the new consultation,” Nikhil Pahwa said. The fourth video from AIB, and other videos supporting Net Neutrality from over 15 standup comedians were released.

By January 2016, the TRAI had received over 2.4 million emails, many of which, it suspected were guided by the template provided by social media giant Facebook in support of its Free Basics campaign. On February 8, 2016, the TRAI ruled out differential pricing, put Free Basics on hold, and by November 2017, the regulatory body crushed the idea of blocking, slowing or offering preferential speeds or treatment to any content.

On November 28, 2017, TRAI recommended that the internet service providers cannot be discriminatory in providing internet access as it is an open platform based on the Constitutional right of equality. It took the government about six months to approve TRAI’s recommendations, which not only upheld net neutrality in India but also made the country a pioneer in blocking ‘zero-rating’ internet data.

The battle for internet freedom has been won but there’s still a need for more clarity. “The department has said that Internet of Things (IoT) has been kept out of the purview of net neutrality rules. It is yet to release the terms of the critical services and data traffic which may be prioritized,” Prashant Phillips, Partner, Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan Attorneys told FE Online. IoT devices and services include smart homes where the AC could be switched on before you reach home and devices that facilitate doctors to perform surgeries using the internet and robots from a distance.

And net neutrality has its critics too. At a time when telcos are bleeding due to cut-throat competition and data and tariff, some critics argue that it is killing commercial innovation (Read full story) without explaining exactly how Facebook Free Basics or Airtel Zero hurt anyone.

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