Net neutrality is the principle that the internet should be a free and open space for all of its users. Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, so that no party is able to purchase preferential access to things on the web.
In December 2014, this principle was about to be seriously violated by telecom operator AirTel India. The company decided to charge its prepaid customers almost sixteen times more than ordinary data charges for the use of Internet services to make calls. This came months after the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) had stopped a proposal from telecom operators to charge extra connectivity charges to companies such as Viber and WhatsApp. AirTel success would mean that other operators such as Vodafone, Idea, and Aircel would start adopting similar policies.
Immediately, Jhatkaa petitioned TRAI, the regulatory body, to prevent AirTel from breaking net neutrality in India, and paving the way for more and more unequal access to the Internet, affecting millions of users.
Due to widespread outrage by existing Internet users in India, five days after they had announced it, AirTel dropped their plan. The telecom minister RS Prasad publicly announced his government’s stand in favour of maintaining net neutrality in India.
However, Minister Prasad’s public stand, though highly positive and encouraging, wasn’t enough. Much depended on TRAI’s upcoming consultation paper, which could make or break net neutrality in the country. Significantly, reports also suggested that Minister Prasad was slated to hold a meeting on the government’s official policy on the issue. Undoubtedly, he was under enormous pressure from powerful telecom company lobbyists to go against his own public stand in support of internet equality.
Jhatkaa’s objective was to provide Minister Prasad with the political incentive to officially push for preserving net neutrality. This would come from demonstrating that there is abiding and widespread public support for the principle in India. In order to achieve this, Jhatkaa reached out to thousands of members and asked them to take to social media and flood it with messages demanding a free and open Internet.
Significantly, Minister Prasad himself indicated his public support for this demand by ‘favouriting’ a Jhatkaa member’s tweet:
A few months after dropping their plans to charge extra for certain services, AirTel India once again threatened to violate net neutrality, by introducing ‘AirTel Zero’. This scheme proposed to allow a few selected mobile applications to be free of cost to users, giving unfair advantage to certain service providers over others. Major e-commerce company Flipkart was to participate in this platform.
Jhatkaa launched a petition asking FlipKart to back out of this deal.
At the same time, it pushed forward the petition to Minister Prasad in the wake of the TRAI releasing an 118-page consultation paper which essentially advocated the IT Ministry to create a policy wherein it would allow telecom companies to break net neutrality.
Further, this paper, meant for public consultation, contained twenty confusing questions through which it invited public opinion in three weeks.
In mid-April, the Executive Director of Jhatkaa received an email from the Vice President of Flipkart, personally informing her about the e-commerce company’s public announcement to back out of ‘Airtel Zero’. In the wake of this victory, the director of Jhatkaa met with the vice president of Flipkart and delivered thank you messages from Jhatkaa members to Flipkart for the decision.
This was a major boost to the burgeoning demand for net neutrality that was rising from the Indian public. The Ministry of Information and Technology was in the process of considering whether net neutrality would be upheld, and this demonstrated to them that major companies such as Flipkart stood by the principle, alongside citizens and startups. A week after this victory, Jhatkaa continued its process of pushing out its petition to Minister Prasad.
Jhatkaa’s lead campaigner on the Net Neutrality campaign, Rachita Taneja, is part of the ‘Save the Internet’ coalition, a group of people and organisations who work for net neutrality in india.
In response to TRAI’s overly technical and confusing questionnaire, this coalition created a platform where it decoded these questions, suggested answers, and made it possible for citizens to send TRAI their views in just a few clicks.
By this time, net neutrality was making news headlines both in India and abroad. Within 12 days, the coalition managed to help send over 1 million views to the TRAI, proving beyond doubt that there is a huge public mandate from internet users in India who want the Internet to remain free and open.
Further, the coalition also directed thousands of people to take further action. People contacted MPs and start-up founders, and spread the information to their social networks. The coalition has over 30,000 likes on their Facebook page, hundreds of media hits, and the support of dozens of major celebrities, e.g. film stars Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan, and politicians like the MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar.
In August, the Department of Telecommunications released a paper on net neutrality and opened it for public consultation. This new paper, though problematic, was much better than the paper put out by TRAI in March. However, the mechanism to respond to this paper was complicated and with multiple steps. Respondents would have to create an account on mygov.in, thereafter, they would need to verify this account over their phones or on email and only then would they be able to respond to the paper.
Jhatkaa took this opportunity to reach out to its members to respond to this paper. The lead campaigner wrote a draft response to the report which was then shared with thousands of Jhatkaa members to use, edit and submit their responses. To make this process more accessible, Jhatkaa even made an easy to follow step by step instruction webpage.
Through 2015, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had been pushing for his new platform “Internet.org” aggresively. This platform was a zero rating platform that violated one of the most important principles of net neutrality. Due to the overwhelming support for net neutrality in March and April, Zuckerberg was forced to rebrand Internet.org to Free Basics to continue pushing for this net neutrality violating platform. The marketing for this platform was deceptive — Facebook projected it as a platform that would enable millions of Indians to access the Internet for free.
In September 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Facebook’s headquarters in San Francisco during his visit to the United States of America.
Soon thereafter, Mark Zuckerberg announced that he would be coming to India to host a question and answer session at Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. Anticipating that this was a move to push for Free Basics in India, Jhatkaa launched an open letter directed to Mark Zuckerberg titled “notreallyinternet.org”. This letter made counter arguments against each claim made by Facebook about the need for Free Basics.
Before the day of the Q&A session at IIT Delhi, Jhatkaa supporters bombarded Mark Zuckerberg’s wall with text linking to the open letter. During the Q&A session, while defending his platform, Mark Zuckerberg openly criticised “online petitions”, which was a direct reference to the Jhatkaa.org open letter.
In an incredibly unexpected move, the TRAI released another consultation paper, this time, specifically on differential pricing and its subset zero rating — one of the three major pillars of net neutrality in India.
This move was potentially problematic given the lobbying Mark Zuckerberg engaged in whilst in India only a few months prior to the release of the paper.
Jhatkaa along with the Save The Internet coalition began mobilising responses to this consultation. However, this time, Mark Zuckerberg copied our model and used Facebook to mobilise support for Free Basics in front of TRAI as a part of their multi crore campaign called “Save Free Basics”. Facebook threw money to gather support for Free Basics in the form of billboards, full page newspaper ads, Facebook promoted posts and missed call campaigns.
One big pattern Jhatkaa noticed was complaints from many Facebook users claiming that Facebook falsely showed their friends or family as having supported Free Basics and sending an email to TRAI. After a little bit more investigation, Jhaktaa launched a campaign asking for TRAI Chairman RS Sharma to disregard all submissions from Facebook’s “Save Free Basics” in response to TRAI’s consultation paper, as submitting false responses to a government consultation process is unethical. Jhatkaa also called for an investigation into claims of Facebook users that their email ids were being used to send email to TRAI. This, however, was not required as only a week later, TRAI Chairman RS Sharma announced that Facebook wasn’t following the proper process of mobilising responses for the consultation paper and were giving submissions that were not useful. Chairman Sharma, by doing this, essentially disregarded all submissions coming in through Facebook’s Free Basics tool. That being said, TRAI also extended the deadline to submit comments by a week, thereby giving Facebook more time to mobilise support. However, Facebook didn’t use this opportunity and instead criticized (and eventually ticked off) TRAI.
A week after the closing of the consultation process, TRAI organised an open house for their paper on differential pricing. Jhatkaa lead campaigner attended this open house and thereafter submitted a detailed email to TRAI on the importance of digital freedom in activism in response to Chairman Sharma giving stakeholders another 3 days to submit final thoughts.
In less than 2 weeks of the open house, TRAI announced that differential pricing would be banned. This was one of the biggest victories for digital rights in India to date.
The victory on differential pricing was one of the three victories that India needs to see in order to have a fair and open Internet.
Jhatkaa will continue to work on net neutrality and engage with its members for the Internet as and when strategic moments for the campaign come up.
Jhatkaa’s open letter to Mark Zuckerberg.
Jhatkaa’s petition to TRAI Chairman RS Sharma asking for submissions coming from the “Save Free Basics” tool to the TRAI consultation paper be disregarded.
The website of the Save the Internet coalition:
A Response to #airtelpledge from the SaveTheInternet.in coalition:
Jhatkaa’s Net Neutrality Updates page