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How Facebook stumbled into India's fight for net neutrality

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Jaymis Loveday / Flickr

The fight for net neutrality has come to India. Last week, two companies withdrew from Facebook's Internet.org project, citing neutrality concerns, and the remaining companies are facing mounting pressure to bail out. But while Internet.org has drawn most of the headlines in the US, it's just one part of a much larger struggle in India, and one that could have serious consequences for the developing world at large.

"My first reaction when I saw the consultation paper was, we're fucked."

The most recent outcry started not with Facebook, but with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (also known as TRAI). On March 30th, TRAI issued a white paper on internet regulation and asked for reactions from the public. The call for responses is part of the process for new telecom rules in India, akin to the FCC's calls for comment, but this paper seemed designed to scare people off, stretching over 118 pages with confusing language and ominous suggestions for how telecoms might tame the web. The backlash was immediate. "The TRAI paper is suggesting that each and every one of [the apps on your phone] needs to get a license to be used in India," one site wrote, as part of a summary of the paper.

For others, like Nikhil Pahwa, the message was even worse: "My first reaction when I saw the consultation paper was, we're fucked." Pahwa helps run a website covering Indian startups, and he’s now a volunteer organizer with Savetheinternet.in, one of the central hubs for the latest surge of net neutrality organizing. The first thing he did was put out a call for volunteers on Twitter. Together, Pahwa and the volunteers worked to simplify the paper, boiling it down to a few key points that casual readers could understand, and providing an easy portal for citizens who wanted to respond. The site started climbing /r/india and circulating in other forums. The popular YouTube comedy group All India Bakchod made a video called "Save The Internet," which racked up 2.5 million views in less than a week, driving even more people to the site.

Before the TRAI paper, the neutrality issue hadn’t hit home

Indian blogs had raised similar concerns when Internet.org launched in India back in February, but before the TRAI paper, the issue hadn’t fully hit home. Internet.org was pitched as an accessibility effort, connecting the vast portions of the Indian population that still can’t afford web access. Internet.org offers free access to specific sites, including Facebook and specific partners for weather and news. The hope is that Internet.org's limited web will be better than nothing, but startups are already worried about the program setting up an uneven playing field. Mark Zuckerberg still denies that the program violates net neutrality, but most observers say that it does. If Indians can access certain apps without paying for a data plan — also known as "zero-rating" — it will make it hard for apps and service outside of Internet.org to break into the market, particularly when those decisions are being made a continent away.

But for Indian activists, the fire didn’t catch on until the TRAI paper gave web-goers something to respond to. There's a lot in TRAI’s white paper that would be objectionable on basic web freedom grounds, including a proposal that would require services to register with telecoms in advance. While the backlash was in full swing, the Indian telecom Airtel announced a new platform called "Airtel Zero" that would offer free access to specific apps — similar to AT&T's now-endangered Sponsored Data program. That created an even larger backlash among Indian startups, who were worried about being priced out by wealthier American competitors. The collective outcry led to Indian partners pulling out of both Airtel Zero and Internet.org, preferring data charges over bad publicity.

"India is essentially ground-zero for zero-rating globally."

But while Airtel might be a more immediate threat than Internet.org, the movement isn't sparing any punches for Mark Zuckerberg's zero-rating program. Like Airtel, Internet.org is offering a zero-rated version of the internet — one that offers free access to certain sites, but makes users pay for the rest of the web. Airtel wanted sites to pay for that preferential access, while Internet.org is offering it as a kind of charity, but the net effect is the same: poor web users will be effectively confined to the free section of the web, and smaller sites will have a much harder time breaking in. Zuckerberg defended the program in a series of statements last week: "The internet is one of the most powerful tools for economic and social progress," he wrote in a post. "I believe everyone in the world deserves access to these opportunities." The organizers at SaveTheInternet.in haven't been impressed. "Internet.org isn't increasing internet access," Pahwa told me. "It's increasing Facebook access."

Whoever wins the fight, the consequences could reach far beyond India. The Internet.org app is already available in Zambia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Colombia. With a massive population and a thriving tech sector, India might be the most attractive country for subsidized web access, but it's far from the only one. If the system works there, it will be easy to apply the same playbook in low-connectivity countries across the world. As Pahwa puts it, "India is essentially ground-zero for zero-rating globally."