In March, a groundswell of opposition arose in response to the consultation paper by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) on the regulation of over-the-top services. A sustained campaign on Twitter over two months mobilised public debate and called on the government to preserve Net neutrality.
By April 18, some claimed more than 100,000 emails had been sent to Trai via savetheinternet.in, while telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had announced that the department of telecom would set up a committee to “look into” the demands.
The movement signals an overdue awakening for India’s online population, which had long been used as a springboard for offline movements such as ‘India Against Corruption’ but had never coalesced to target online issues such as Section 66A of the information technology Act.
While the ‘Save the Internet’ movement is a positive development, it has also shut itself off to more nuanced debate. The movement raises important questions over the lack of an institutionalised environment for future Internet activism.
Lost in all this is the idea that Net neutrality has its share of ambiguities in the Indian context.
For example, the smartphone application AP Speaks — bundled with Facebook’s internet.org in Andhra Pradesh’s circles — allows the state’s residents to give feedback to the government. Does this mean 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.
Similarly, having committees vocalise the government’s stand every time a ‘wave’ erupts on Twitter is pointless if there isn’t a mechanism to ensure commitments don’t flag. The government must explicitly define what it means by, and how it intends to safeguard, Net neutrality. The ‘Save the Internet’ movement proves that Indians desperately care about Internet freedom.
In 2012, in the United States, during the online movement against the proposed implementation of Acts dealing with Internet regulation, social media was at the forefront — but it was also backed by activist institutions and enjoyed the venerable endorsement of Wikipedia and Reddit.
Some of the more prominent Indian think-tanks dedicated to Internet policy are prohibited from grassroots activism as part of their charter and conditions attached to their funding. Already the government is known to be working on a replacement for Section 66A. Who will call for a fight?
We have an eloquent start, one that will hopefully equal and surpass the American Internet freedom ecosystem. All we need is a variety of actors to keep the gears moving even during times of peace.
Vasudevan Mukunth is a science communicator with Brainwave magazine, Bengaluru and Anuj Srivas is at the Oxford Internet Institute. The views expressed by the authors are personal.