America may be opening the door to Internet access being sold to the highest bidder, but we still need to keep fighting. Activist Nikhil Pahwa shares seven lessons that he learned as part of a successful coalition to protect net neutrality in India.
A few months ago I was sitting at a cafe in the lakeside town of Pokhara in Nepal, flanked on three sides by the Himalayas, when I noticed something unexpected on my phone. After I clicked on a link on my Facebook timeline, I was warned that data charges might apply for sites outside of Facebook. Facebook is “zero rated” in Nepal — meaning that NCell, my mobile Internet service provider in Nepal, had made Facebook free of data charges — while charging me for access to the rest of the Internet. This is what the reality of net neutrality looks like: a business deal that makes certain kinds of information more difficult or more expensive for everyone to access.
This is the fate we avoided in India, when we won the battle for net neutrality in February 2016, followed by a ruling in November 2017 that forbid ISPs to speed up or slow down access to websites, or create and market bundles of websites and applications. It’s been hailed as one of the strongest net neutrality regulations in the world, and it’s the path that US should take — instead of going in the opposite direction.
Net neutrality, complex as it sounds, is quite a simple concept: ISPs should not be allowed to interfere with how your Internet connection works in order to influence what you access on the Internet, or how you access it. This means they shouldn’t make one site or application faster to use, or more expensive (in terms of data costs), than another. In a media market where even the smallest interference can impact user choice, net neutrality provides a level playing field for everyone who puts content on the web or uses the web to see content, regardless of how much money we have in our pockets. It is as close to perfect competition as any marketplace can be.
Users across the world freely contribute to Wikipedia. A kid in a village in Kenya can watch a Khan academy video in the same way that another in Mexico can. This is all possible because of net neutrality.
But the Internet isn’t just a marketplace: it’s also a global commons that unites our planet. It is what has given us Wikipedia, with users across the world freely contributing information that everyone can learn from. We congregate and connect on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and countless other forums. A kid in a village in Kenya can watch a Khan Academy video in the same way that another in Mexico can. Our email addresses — which we can dispose of at will — serve as unique identifiers to log into services, irrespective of where they’ve been built or where their servers are hosted. This is all possible because enforcing net neutrality prevents ISPs from slicing up the Internet into bundles of sites. If different ISPs in different countries were to do this, the Internet that you access in the US would be very different from the Internet that I access in India.
To maintain the Internet as a global commons, it’s critical for ISPs to not influence the Internet use in their country by speeding up some services or making some cheaper. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai says he wants to reverse the “heavy-handed Internet regulation” set up by the Obama administration. However, those restrictions are not cumbersome — they are necessary to ensure that ISPs focus on providing Internet access and not compete or interfere with people’s ability to use websites or apps. Reversing net neutrality would inevitably benefit larger businesses like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix, which have the funds and the access to partner with ISPs for preferential treatment, while smaller or younger upstarts will not. A Netflix has the ability and the resources to pay Comcast for priority treatment, while a video startup that, say, streams world cinema for a South Asian audience would not.
Reversing net neutrality could drive US businesses to move to countries where they have greater latitude to operate — Silicon Valley might shift to, say, Bangalore, and serve the rest of the world from there.
A US reversal on net neutrality won’t just affect America — it will impact the entire world. Because giant companies like Uber, Amazon and Airbnb will see an increase in their costs of operation in the US — they’ll probably need to pay US-based ISPs to be accessible to US-based Internet users — it could very well lead to these services becoming more expensive in other countries. Developers and content creators outside the US could lose the freedom to build for users in the US, because most of them won’t have the funds, access and time to partner with a US-based ISP. Overall, US businesses may be driven to move to countries where they have greater latitude to operate, so Silicon Valley might shift to, say, Bangalore, and serve the rest of the world from there. But what’s most worrying is that a regressive ruling in the US is likely to snowball into other countries doing the same.
Thanks to net neutrality, I was able to start an online technology publication in India with very little money, and compete with the country’s largest media companies. When net neutrality was first challenged in my country in 2015, I was a part of the team that began fighting to protect it. Within 12 days of launching the SaveTheInternet.in campaign, we mobilized more than a million people to email the Indian government to support net neutrality. This got us a seat at the table, and as representatives of a citizens’ collective for Internet freedom, we participated in government consultations, parliamentary committee depositions and other processes for more than a year. In early 2016, we achieved victory when the Indian telecom regulatory agency ruled in favor of net neutrality.
Here are some of the lessons we learned from our struggle in India, which may be useful for those of you in the US — or anyone fighting for net neutrality elsewhere — to consider:
Lesson #1: You can’t fight this battle alone.
While only a small group of people started the net neutrality campaign in India, we decided to keep bringing in more people and organizations into our collective. Movements today often falter due to disagreements over ownership or strategy. Instead of dictating what each organization ought to do or forcing a role on them, the SaveTheInternet.in campaign became the platform that supported everyone working toward net neutrality. Because nobody owned the movement, everybody owned the movement. We understood that the issue was bigger than all of us, so we needed to work together instead of at cross purposes.
Lesson #2: Rally people and groups around principles of freedom.
In fighting this battle, it could have been easy to get drawn into many particular arguments — about market competition, about whether useful services or free services should be given preferential treatment, about whether making selective websites free helps the poor gain access to the Internet. While it’s important to address these arguments (in short: net neutrality is about allowing for fair competition on the Internet; even free services compete with each other; and there are ways of providing free Internet access to poor people without violating net neutrality) — it’s also critical to elevate the debate and focus on the basic principles. During our campaign, I constantly tried to keep the focus on ensuring self-determination in the global commons — making our fight for net neutrality a fight about freedom, an issue that transcends all smaller arguments. What’s more, it’s hard to argue against freedom in a country like India that fought for and won their freedom.
Lesson #3: Unite; don’t divide.
One key difficulty with the debate in the US is that it’s become a politically polarized battle between the Republicans and the Democrats. How we avoided this situation in India: When the head of the opposition party in the Indian Parliament criticized the government, we thanked him for supporting net neutrality, but we also requested that he not make the issue political. From then on, while opposition parties attacked the government for not doing enough to support net neutrality, they never said the government opposed net neutrality. In fact, at one point, the government told the opposition party leader that it supports net neutrality more than the opposition does! It’s important for US activists to reach across the aisle and make this a bipartisan issue. Democrats should try to find common ground in the idea of protecting Internet freedom. While you may lose this round at the FCC, you’ll need bipartisan support for net neutrality to win future battles.
To encourage bipartisan support, voters should reach out to their elected representatives, and ask them to act on their behalf. This means calling them, meeting them, and/or sending them emails. We ran a “Mail your MP” campaign in India, where we created a tool that allowed citizens to email their Members of Parliament to ask them to protect net neutrality. Many of these MPs received thousands of emails via our platform, and these, in turn, helped influence the way some of them voted. What’s more, thanks to this campaign, many MPs then reached out to us for help in understanding the issue better.
The problem with net neutrality is many people don’t understand it. So it’s important to win the war of facts and ideas by putting out simplified information in the public domain.
Lesson #4: Keep trying new tactics and strategies.
There is no single way of campaigning, because you don’t know which of your efforts will stick. We worked with one of the most popular comedy groups in India, All India Bakchod, and they created videos (here, here, here) explaining net neutrality to young people in a relatable manner that went beyond the more technical approach we were taking. We created Google spreadsheets that allowed regular people to tweet to almost 150 India-based startup founders and push them to support net neutrality. Given that India is pushing to get all citizens online with the Digital India campaign and encouraging tech entrepreneurship with the Startup India campaign, we eventually got more than 500 startup founders to write letters to the Prime Minister of India, seeking his support for net neutrality. We built multilingual websites on the issue — India has 23 official languages – and although none of them were used, we always had them as an option. We even considered sending MPs thousands of physical letters instead of email, though we never did that. It’s important to try every (legal) way possible to influence people.
Lesson #5: Win the information war.
The problem with net neutrality is that many people don’t understand it. There’s also frequently an attempt on the part of its opponents to make it sound more complicated, to limit mass participation. Under these circumstances, it’s important to win the war of facts and ideas by putting out simplified information in the public domain. The first thing we did was condense the dense, legal jargon-filled, 184-page regulatory paper into a sharper 24-page document, which we published as a public Google doc. At one point, there were as many as 19,000 people viewing it simultaneously! We also crowdsourced a 34-page FAQ explainer about net neutrality. It ended up informing public debate — once the issue became big, we found the anchors on TV were asking our questions and the panelists were giving our answers because both sides were using our document. Simplify, educate and inform.
Lesson #6: Encourage activity, not just donations.
In battles like this, money isn’t always difficult to come by, but what can happen is that people make donations and delegate their responsibility to the activists, instead of becoming participants themselves. It’s important here to work with others and allow them to co-create the campaign. For example, some companies mobilized their teams to create memes and images for us. Another created advertising banners that we published online in a .zip file, which media organizations ran on their websites as ads. One company took the banners and ran paid ads on TV and radio for the campaign. Many companies also used their websites to push their users to write to the regulator to support net neutrality: Paytm, India’s largest mobile payments company, even embedded our SaveTheInternet.in website into their own website. Two other companies — Truecaller and Haptic — offered their help too; they sent messages to their entire user base of over 100 million people and asked them to stand up for net neutrality.
Lesson #7: Debate, document and repeat.
During a campaign, you’ll constantly come across new angles and arguments you’d never thought of. In the beginning, for example, I didn’t know how to deal with opponents comparing Zero Rating (which I explained in the first paragraph) to “toll-free numbers.” But the then-CTO of Flipkart, India’s largest online retailer, published a rebuttal of the comparison, and we used it to help us address the claim. We kept hearing new analogies for net neutrality and new types of arguments (social, economic, political and technical). So what did we do? We raised them on our SaveTheInternet.in Slack channel and debated how to address them. We created internal documents with responses to statements, which everyone on the campaign could refer to, and kept adding to them.
While things don’t look good for net neutrality in the US, it’s important for activists to remember that the fight for civil liberties is continuous and never-ending. So, if Ajit Pai and the panel reverse the net neutrality regulation, be prepared to go to court, threaten to vote out your elected representatives, and work for a change. The fight doesn’t end Thursday afternoon: the fight for reclaiming net neutrality is just beginning. Play the long game.