It’s not over yet, let’s keep the gears of net neutrality moving

Hindustan Times (edited)
May 1, 2015

By Vasudevan Mukunth & Anuj Srivas

On November 26, 2008, when most of India was getting ready to turn in for the night, those people that turned on their television were in for a rude shock. A group of terrorists had stormed the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Hotels, taking hundreds of guests hostage.

As it turned out, our law enforcement authorities were in for an equally rude shock after they discovered that the gunmen were using BlackBerry devices to communicate; a communication channel that, at the time, the Indian government did not have real-time access to.

Less than a month later after the 26/11 attacks, Parliament passed an amendment bill to the Information Technology Act, 2000 which was primarily aimed at intercepting communications that threatened the security of the State, but also included a few nasty surprises such as the now struck-down Section 66 A.

What was more astonishing, however, was that the amendments were passed without debate or any sort of discussion and, apart from a few sparsely scattered voices, were met with very little outrage.

The Indians for Internet freedom

This is in stark contrast to the groundswell of visible opposition that has risen in response to the TRAI consultation paper on regulation of over-the-top services. A sustained and successful campaign has been waged on Twitter by a group of activists, artists, journalists, lawyers and scholars over the last month, to mobilize public debate and prompt calls for the government to preserve net neutrality.

The rise of this movement, which has seen support from hard-working politicians to Bollywood actors, is a phenomenon that deserves to be celebrated and can only be a positive development for India’s mushrooming online population.  And yet, in its present form, it needs to encourage greater nuance in the general debate while transforming into something that will remain sustainable in the long run.

The surge started in the last week of March and picked up steam around April 11. By April 18 (at the time of writing this), some tweeters had claimed more than 100,000 emails had been sent to TRAI via, the lightning-rod website set up to give fist-shakers something to do.

By this time, telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had announced that the Department of Telecom would set up a committee to “look into” and ensure the preservation of net neutrality in India, although no specifics were mentioned.

Nonetheless, the movement in question was something that didn’t manifest itself when Section 66 A was drawn up and passed. Of course, it has been eight years since then, and in that time, not only has social media matured into a formidable agent for change, there are more people willing to devote time and speak out.

The spectrum of support

Enmeshed in the movement are also mediapersons and politicians, many hankering for a bite of the mileage an agglomeration of public opinion usually offers. Media establishments such as the Times of India and NDTV had signed up to be a part of Facebook’s initiative earlier this year. Earlier this month, however, after public outrage, they backed away from the initiative and asserted their commitment to net neutrality instead.

The questions beg to be asked: what did the organisations think they were signing up for, and is their commitment to net neutrality sincere? In the best case scenario, it signals a complete lack of awareness and in the worst, it smacks of opportunism.

And the political class refuses to be left out. The DMK’s MK Stalin, son of party supremo M Karunanidhi, issued a statement saying, “This attempt to increase the profits of the telecom companies by surrendering social gains should be condemned. I request the TRAI to dismiss this proposal and let the internet continue to be a neutral medium which serves our country and community instead of a select few companies.” Was this the first time Stalin has said anything about Internet governance?

At the other end of the spectrum, we have politicians like BJD MP Tathagata Satpathy and Kerala’s Rajeev Chandrasekher who have been able to articulate the reasons behind what has been consistent support. However, what is more important is that the online movement against net neutrality is forcing politicians across the spectrum to understand and speak the language of the Internet. After all, the term “net neutrality” is now part of the conversation at the DMK HQ.

Open up the debate

In Andhra Pradesh, in fact, the debate over net neutrality will be closer home. The local government has an app called AP Speaks that’s been bundled along with Facebook’s in state circles. It allows citizens and residents of Andhra Pradesh to give advice or feedback to the government on a number of subjects. How does this co-exist with our current conceptualization of net neutrality and zero-rating? Is there any situation by which zero-rating could be useful for India’s low-income Internet population? The debate in its present form concedes no space for such perspectives, treating net neutrality as a monolithic idea.

And by voting for net neutrality once a year and creating committees to vocalize the government’s stand every time a ‘wave’ erupts on Twitter is not going to be of any help if there isn’t also a mechanism to ensure commitments don’t flag. The government has to explicitly define what it means by net neutrality, which parts it intends to safeguard and how. Overall, it must be loyal to the idea of keeping active watch over entry-barriers and impose penalties on attempts at traffic-shaping.

The movement’s skepticism showed best when TRAI’s consultation paper – a document asking what should be done – was interpreted as being suggestive. The TRAI servers were flooded with hundreds of thousands of emails from people concerned about the violation of net neutrality even as it seemed everyone knew the source of ‘evil’ was the telecom companies.

On April 17, the Amazon India homepage sported a banner claiming it fully supported net neutrality and – more important – that TRAI was planning to allow telcos an “extreme violation of net neutrality”. If it was the BJP-led government’s plan to scapegoat TRAI and then project a beneficent entity in the form of a committee constituted by the DoT, which has been hailed as a good thing, it worked splendidly without the government having issued a single unsolicited statement on Internet governance.

On the other hand, its response seems a poisoned reflection of the on-the-ground movement. The people involved are, colloquially speaking, good people, sincere practitioners of their professions. What could give more weight to their ambitions is the presence of an institution or two. So where are they?

Keep moving the gears

In 2012, in the U.S., during the online movement against the proposed implementation of the SOPA and PIPA Acts, social media was at the forefront – but it was also backed up by activist institutions such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the benevolent clout of organizations such as Wikipedia and Reddit.

In India, the social media movement is there. But there were and are no institutions, no agents to cohere the debate, no doors to knock on after the “Save the Net” wave has passed. Already the government is known to be working on a replacement for Section 66 A. Who will call for a fight, or should we just wait and hope AIB will make another video?

The more vocal think-tanks like the Centre for Internet and Society and the Centre for Communication Governance are prohibited from grassroots activism or campaigning/lobbying as part of their charter and conditions attached to their funding.

Nevertheless, this is a great start; something that will hopefully lead to and surpass the Internet freedom ecosystem in the US. What is missing, however, is an institutionalized ecosystem comprising different actors. It is that which keeps the machinery moving even during times of peace, forever on the road to change.