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Facing up to Facebook and others on net neutrality

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: Mar. 02, 2016
Updated: Jan. 29, 2020

When the telecom regulator in India ruled on 8 February against discriminatory pricing of data on the Internet, it was celebration time for the Save The Internet campaign. A motley bunch of activists had argued against commercial monopolies and successfully taken on the combined might of Facebook and Indian telecom service providers.

If the original policy proposals had gone through, the way the Internet is used in India may have changed forever with a few companies gaining a stranglehold on access. Based on commercial considerations, they would decide which websites would be seen and which wouldn’t. 

In the spotlight was Free Basics with which Facebook was offering some websites free but charging for others. It was already in a deal with Reliance Telecom and seeking to get more telecom providers on board.

Before Free Basics came along, there was Airtel Zero, by which Airtel introduced the idea of zero rating. With zero rating Airtel wanted to give access free to users, but would charge hefty fees from Internet businesses like Flipkart for directing traffic to them.

Both concepts seem pro-user, but in reality limit freedom of choice by deciding which websites users should visit. Once controlled in this way, the Internet would cease to be the driver of empowerment and innovation that it has been.

Activists of the Save The Internet campaign therefore demanded clear rules to ensure net neutrality or unhindered access to websites that users choose to go to.

The regulator’s ruling on discriminatory pricing means telecom companies cannot make data partially or selectively free. They have been stopped from getting into deals under which another Internet business pays for the data with the sole purpose of directing users in its direction. Such deals would discriminate against websites and the user’s freedom of choice. It is only in emergencies that the regulator has allowed free access for specific purposes.

Free Basics, earlier called, was being widely publicised by the company and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, as a public-spirited effort to bring the unconnected in India onto the Internet. His message was that poor Indians had the opportunity to hook up with the rest of the world.

But not everyone saw Facebook’s motives as being altruistic. Why would it offer anything for free? Moreover, this was not the way the Internet was meant to be. A gatekeeper wasn’t welcome.

Activists argued that net neutrality is core to the functioning of the Internet. As they saw it, everyone has the right to access the Internet as he or she chooses. If telecom companies became distributors, they would, as is the case of television, be in a position to limit choice and shape preferences.

With Free Basics, the activists foresaw Facebook penetrating the Indian market in the guise of community service, but finally playing the role of a powerful gatekeeper. It was colonialism of a digital kind, they said.

A snowballing effort to save the Internet began in April 2015, 10 days or so after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) put out a discussion paper on regulating Internet services to the advantage of telecom operators.

The scene at that point of time was like this:

Airtel had firmed up plans for Airtel Zero and signed up Flipkart, which would pay for data charges that would be given to users free by Airtel. Flipkart was ready to pay four times the actual price of the data in return for the customers that Airtel would direct to it. Facebook had launched in India with Reliance Telecom.

The telecom companies in general had for long been proposing interconnection charges, saying that websites and Internet service providers should have been paying them for the users they were getting.

What remained was the enunciation of a policy by TRAI which was in the works. It was specifically in response to TRAI’s discussion paper on regulating the Internet that Nikhil Pahwa, Editor of MediaNama and an activist for Internet freedom, rallied together Kiran Jonnalagadda, Apar Gupta, Rohin Dharmakumar and Raman Chima who became the core group behind the Save The Internet campaign.

They had all got to know one other over the years and had been involved with the Internet in different capacities. Jonnalagadda of HasGeek is a developer and a technology enthusiast. Gupta is a lawyer. Chima, also a lawyer, was at Google till recently. Dharmakumar is setting out to be an entrepreneur but has been a business journalist with previous stints in marketing and communications.

It was appalling, recalls Pahwa, that regulation of the Internet should have even been up for discussion by TRAI. The TRAI paper was more than 100 pages of confusing text. Bizarrely, it was titled: ‘Regulatory Framework for Over The Top (OTT) Services’.

The way the telecom regulatory process had been happening in India, ideas with wide-ranging impact had been getting discussed in language most ordinary people couldn’t figure out. Consultations had been public in principle, but in reality involved only those in the loop. Little had been done to demystify proposals.

The urgent need was to respond to TRAI by joining the discussion with a cogent reply. But it was equally important to reach out and create public awareness. For a reply to be effective, it needed to be backed with strong public opinion. The question was how to reach out quickly. An email to the humour outfit, All India Bakchod (AIB), resulted in a satirical video which caught the imagination of people as it went viral. It proved to be the turning point.

But those who connected needed to be convinced. The activists used as they adopted a process of simplification and discussion. TRAI’s paper of more than 100 pages was reduced to just 18 pages of simple readable material.


Various people began joining the discussion and giving their personal time to sharpen ideas and carry the campaign forward. It was a public effort in the truest sense with folks logging in and out with their contributions. There was also no formal structure or hierarchy. Everything was voluntary. All the action and sharing of information was in the public domain. A young Karthik Balakrishnan was one day an intern at HasGeek and the next thing he knew he was building the website for Save The Internet.

The Save The Internet effort had about 50 activists in different orbits working for it. Finally, more than one million emails were sent to TRAI opposing the proposed policy change and in defence of net neutrality. The campaign was an unprecedented success.

A part of the strategy was to send emails to MPs and MLAs. The challenge here was to get together an accurate database. The move paid off because the Department of Telecom held a consultation and the Standing Committee of Parliament on Information Technology, which was meeting on dropped calls, also took up the issue of net neutrality.

Parliamentarians like Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress, Tathagata Satpathy of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Rajeev Chandrasekharan, an independent supported by the BJP,  began taking a keen interest in the campaign and the issues it was raising. Rahul Gandhi, back from an overseas trip, also supported the campaign and with this the Congress was on board.

The telecom companies found themselves in a situation they weren’t ready for. They were accustomed to TRAI hearings where they pretty much set the pace. Now they were up against scrutiny. They couldn’t figure out the Save The Internet campaign. So when the core team of the campaign went to the Department of Telecom consultation in May 2015, the telecom companies accused them of being funded by the Ford Foundation — which, of course, was not true. 

It was around this time that the TRAI chairman, Rahul Khullar, moved on. But it was a full three months before his replacement, Ram Sewak Sharma, took office.

Sharma had been Secretary in the Department of Electronics and Information Technology. He had also been Director-General of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Earlier he was Chief Secretary in Jharkhand. Sharma began looking at the policy paper afresh with better understanding and by factoring in the objections that had been raised.

In the meantime the Reddit community in India launched a campaign against Flipkart for its arrangement with Airtel Zero and forced it to withdraw. Similarly, activists for Save The Internet got Clear Trip and the Times Group to exit from Facebook’s

Finding opposition growing, Facebook responded as a corporation could be expected to. It rebranded as Free Basics. Its PR machine went into overdrive as it tried to recover lost ground. Both the consultations in Parliament and the Department of Telecom hadn’t come to any conclusion on net neutrality (they still haven’t) and so there remained the possibility of influencing a decision. A TRAI ruling was also yet to come.

By December Facebook launched a full-scale advertising blitz. It bought up the front pages of major newspapers with advertisements for Free Basics.  It poured millions of dollars into the campaign, hardselling itself instead of trying to explain its position and win over adherents.

Borrowing from the activists’ strategy, Facebook also launched a campaign to send emails to TRAI in defence of Free Basics. But the email that surfaced on Facebook pages was confusing and made no attempt to engage with users. Many who hit the send button realised later that it wasn’t what they wanted to do.

Facebook claimed that more than 11 million emails had been sent to TRAI. The number was difficult to verify. The activists had meanwhile triggered another round of emailing. This time 400,000 emails from personal computers and email accounts went to TRAI.


Facebook’s confidence perhaps came from its seemingly unassailable position in India. With 125 million users, India is Facebook’s second largest market after the US. For these millions of users, the social networking site is Selfie Land. It is where they post pictures, discover long-lost friends, chat and sometimes sound off. Being on Facebook is just another one of those addictive everyday things that technology makes possible.

In such a situation, pushing Free Basics seemed easy enough. Well-hooked selfie trippers were unlikely to get into questions of net neutrality. For a good many of them Facebook may even be the equivalent of the Internet itself.

Facebook had also begun preparing the ground for its India push when it had Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend a Town Hall meeting at its headquarters in the US. The recurring theme there, too, was poverty.

At stake is a rapidly growing market. With 400 million Internet users, India is second only to China’s 600 million. Of Indians on Facebook, 80 per cent are in the low bandwidth 2G category. The majority of them are accessing Facebook on mobile phones.

The growth in Internet users comes from the use of mobiles. In urban areas the mobile Internet user base grew by 65 per cent in a year to be 197 million in October 2015. It was 87 million in rural India and is expected to grow to 106 million by June 2016.

Such numbers throw up endless possibilities for an array of businesses from banking to healthcare and education. With Free Basics, Facebook, together with telecom companies, would be well positioned to monetise these rapidly multiplying opportunities.

But for India, such a monopoly of the Internet could have unhappy consequences. Facebook and telecom companies would decide which website would be available free and which would be paid for. This would have the potential to push up the prices of services, skew content and discriminate against start-ups. It could be the end of competition through equal access, which is the boon of the Internet.


“The Internet has emerged over the past decades as an enabler of free speech and the free market,” says Jonnalagadda of HasGeek. “This is important because there is still some old-fashioned thinking of the Internet being a marketplace or a shopping mall or an information highway. All of these things tend to fall short when you look at them closely. The only model that seems to hold is that the Internet is like a free market.”

“You can have a marketplace in a free market. But you can’t convert the free market into a marketplace. So if you take it from that perspective then giving access to the Internet should not decide what you do on the Internet. Only you as the user should be doing that,” Jonnalagadda explains.

“The user has to decide for herself or himself what he or she wants to do with the Internet. It can’t be somebody else telling you what is good for you and what is not good for you.”

Jonnalagadda, 36, is a hardcore techie. His outfit, HasGeek, does technology conferences. For being a techie, Jonnalagadda is exceptionally lucid when he discusses social and economic aspects of the Internet. As we talk the first time on Skype — he in Bengaluru and we in New Delhi — he comes across as articulate and fair. He is focussed on the facts and interested only in evidence. We realise later through conversations with others that this is the spirit that generally defined the Save The Internet campaign. It was a civil society initiative minus slogans and hype. It put out its positions, but encouraged people to argue, be convinced, or have their own take on net neutrality.

The campaign said there was danger of ‘digital colonialism’ comparable with what the East India Company had done. We ask Jonnalagadda whether this isn’t stretching things a bit.

Jonnalagadda has his take on this. He explains: “When the East India Company came to India 200 or 300 years ago, the purpose was to trade. But once they started controlling resources they said the purpose of this trade is that you are a source of raw material and you are a consumer of finished goods, but you are not anything in between. It is what became the British Raj. It is fine to say this is progress, but it is not the kind of progress that is good for society.”

“The Internet remains a free market and an enabler of free speech only when certain conditions are fulfilled. Getting on to the Internet requires gaining access through a service provider, which has been given spectrum, a scarce resource, on licence, with the condition that it will be used for public good,” he says.

Since there are only a few companies that get spectrum, they are each and collectively in a monopolistic position. Therefore, regulation is needed to ensure that the licence condition of acting in the larger public interest is fulfilled.

“So if the regulator doesn’t do its job, any one of these companies could say that now that it has a monopoly it can abuse it and decide what is good for the public,” says Jonnalagadda. “That is exactly where Facebook comes in. Facebook is not a licence holder but it is attempting to make partnerships with licence holders in India, saying we would like to give you Facebook for free but little else.”

“If a telecom operator actually does this, which is what Reliance Communications has been doing, it is essentially an abuse of licence conditions — although not illegal because the rules are not clear. The point of this campaign is to declare this to be specifically illegal because here you have a licence holder who is giving benefit to one company and no one else. That is what a monopolist would do and it is not in the public interest.”


Net neutrality may never have become the national debate it is today if Pahwa, as editor of MediaNama, hadn’t zeroed in on it when telecom operators were trying to push a policy in their own favour at TRAI.

Pahwa, 34, dropped out of an engineering course, became a blogger and then an online journalist. In 2008 he set up MediaNama, which covers telecom and Internet companies and has an overall understanding of the digital space.

At TRAI’s public hearing on regulating the Internet, Pahwa heard the then TRAI chairman, Khullar, say that he was under pressure from telecom operators to permit the levying of interconnection charges on online businesses.

Khullar’s position was that he didn’t want to get into this and the operators were free to come to mutually acceptable ways of doing business together.  

“Now that kind of statement ignores the nature of the Internet,” says Pahwa. “The Internet is not just a business. We are not just consumers of content. We are users of the Internet. Those who could do deals with telecom carriers would be accessible and those who couldn’t wouldn’t.”

Pahwa filed nine stories live for his website from that hearing and recorded the entire proceedings sitting near the speaker. From here began the initiative that resulted in the Save The Internet campaign.

Pahwa had been tracking what telecom companies had been saying for quite some time. He had noticed that “interconnection charges” was among the five points put up by the Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI) when Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister.

Earlier, at the Mobile World Congress at Barcelona, Manoj Kohli, as CEO of Airtel, said Internet companies were making money riding on networks and that they should be paying charges to telecom companies. It was clear that Airtel was leading from the front on this issue. Similarly, Vodafone representatives in interviews to The Hindu spoke of charging Internet companies for allowing users to access them.

MediaNama follows a body of work approach, Pahwa tells us. It keeps covering an issue it regards as important. The result was that there was a record of the different statements of telecom companies seeking to get revenue from Internet access. In much the same way, MediaNama has been covering net neutrality since 2008.

Pahwa has also focussed on covering the digital ecosystem as a whole and not just Internet or telecom. It has enabled him to see where intersections were taking place and what the implications could be. 

Undoubtedly, his biggest strength has been being an independent journalist working at an arm’s length from specific business interests. In this way he has been able to honestly point out what reinforces the Internet and what weakens it.

Documenting information the way MediaNama does can be hugely valuable. For instance, the website routinely covers earnings conference calls by telecom operators with their investors every quarter. Here companies make statements that don’t necessarily get reported in the media in general, but are significant pieces of information. An example is Internet telephony. Telecom companies have told investors that Internet telephony accounts for an insignificant part of usage. Yet to the regulator their pitch has been that they are losing revenue because of Internet telephony.

Closely monitoring companies and picking up and interpreting information that is available but goes unnoticed is an important role that MediaNama plays. It is straightforward journalism that puts out the facts and makes it easier to dissect positions taken by companies.

The strength of the Save The Internet campaign was that it stuck to facts and hard evidence. It steered clear of sweeping opinions and angry exchanges that often define online debates.

To understand the interplay between Internet neutrality and zero rating, the campaign looked at the experience of other economies. Had zero rating made the Internet cheaper or not?

Jonnalagadda tells us the campaign had cited evidence from Europe where the latest studies showed that zero rating had made the Internet on average twice as expensive.

The European Union has only recently passed a law banning differential pricing, but allowing zero rating. Till now different countries in Europe have had their own regulations. Germany allows zero rating and France does not. In Finland, access to the Internet is regarded as a fundamental right and is subsidised by the government.

A study has been done on how much data can be bought using 28 euros. In France you can buy twice as much data as in Germany. In Finland it is 100 times as much.  

Jonnalagadda says that this is because zero rating engenders a monopoly-like situation. But when there is competition the price goes down and access increases.

“Zero rating seems like a good way for a company to say, let’s improve access. But if you do not have zero rating, competition alone will force this to happen. This is what we have been telling TRAI,” says Jonnalagadda.

Explaining the difference between the amount of data bought for 28 euros in Germany and France, Jonnalagadda says: “As it turns out the highest consumption of data happens by people watching video. In Germany most of the service providers allow you to access video for free as long as it is video from one of the services they provide. For anything else you have to pay. In France they aren’t allowed to do that. They have to charge for everything.”

The result is that in France telecom operators are incentivised to make the entire Internet cheaper because otherwise no one is going to watch the operator’s video. Since they can’t discriminate in their own favour the entire Internet gets cheaper.


The Save The Internet campaign succeeded in raising the bar for regulation in telecom. It showed how citizens can engage with the regulator. The key persons driving the campaign were meticulous about sticking to the facts. Interestingly neither Facebook nor Airtel were named in presentations. They got a buy-in from new-age entrepreneurs like Paytm who set aside immediate commercial gains for a larger interest. 

Save The Internet is poised to transform itself from being a loose collective of spirited individuals to becoming the Internet Freedom Foundation. Is this a good thing? It remains to be seen.

The strength of the campaign was it lacked hierarchy and organisational structure. It drew talent and expertise from all over. People were drawn to it because it engendered a feeling of easy participation. Will the setting up of a foundation keep this spirit alive? 

On the other hand a foundation will be a clear reference point on matters of policy. Much remains to be done to use the Internet for education and empowerment. These are social goals that go beyond mere commercial arrangements.

The campaign, by creating awareness, has had a significant impact on the working of the regulator’s functioning, which has now become an open process  in real terms. While the first TRAI paper on March 2015 was dense and difficult to understand, the second one in December was short and simple. The new TRAI chairman has also actively solicited a range of opinions in contrast to his predecessor who had dismissed public criticism as mere noise. 

“It is all part of the process of change,” says Chima, 29, who has been closely involved with regulatory issues. “People now also realise that they have to make regulation work. It won’t do to sit back and let companies decide things for society.” The campaign is a good example of how an important resource like the Internet can be protected and used for the general good.