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India’s Net neutrality crusaders

It is not like Nikhil Pahwa, 34, was born to fight for the principle of Net neutrality.

A principle which in its simplest form suggests that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking websites.

Pahwa was born to write about it.

And as founder and editor of news website Medianama, he did. Several times. Over the last couple of years. Or, more recently, when he was on a holiday, late in December 2014. When Bharti Airtel Ltd, India’s largest telecom carrier by subscribers, announced that it would charge extra for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services use on its network. VoIP services include Skype, WhatsApp, Line and Viber—those that let users make free calls through the Internet.

Needless to say, Airtel’s announcement caused massive outrage across social networks. And after the furore, which lasted about three days, the company retracted its plan. Saying that it would wait for the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) to come out with a consultation paper on the subject, and perhaps then reconsider its decision.

Exactly three months later, on 27 March 2015, a Friday, Trai did. And it put out the consultation paper on its website. Titled Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) Services, the document ran into 118 pages—31,256 words.

The same day, early in the afternoon, at his office in Civil Lines, New Delhi, Pahwa sat down to read the paper. He couldn’t. It was way too long. So he skimmed. And as he glanced over words like ‘licensing regime’, ‘pricing differentiation’, ‘regulatory imbalance’, Nikhil muttered: “We are f---ed. Something needs to be done about this.”

It would be fair to say that the issue of keeping the Internet neutral has taken India by storm. It has become a cause celebre.

In just under a month, almost everybody who is important or considers herself important has weighed in on it. Reams have been written on it—in newspapers (pink and white), blogs and social networking websites. Celebrities have supported it. Columnists have opined on it. So have billion-dollar start-up founders. And politicians. And TV news anchors. There have been petitions and email campaigns. Memes and videos. Outrage and discussion. In India and abroad.

But then, it would be fair to say that none of it happened by chance. No. Almost every bit of it was strategically thought through and executed. And it all started when a random group of people got together with a single agenda in mind—that Net neutrality is an important enough subject which will impact everybody’s life. So, it must be discussed. Widely.

And in a way, it all started when a hapless man frantically began reaching out to all his friends and acquaintances to do something about it.

The calls

“I was shocked,” says Pahwa. “So I was expecting the Trai paper to be out but not so soon. And not in the form or way it was worded.” Almost immediately, he reached out to a litigation lawyer and friend, Apar Gupta, 30. Now, Pahwa and Gupta go back a long way, almost five years, and share similar interests in freedom of expression and Internet freedom protection.

“Dude, did you see the Trai paper?” said Pahwa, on the call.

“Yeah, I’ve seen it. Haven’t gone through it in detail. But, what do you make of it?”

“I don’t know. We need to do something about it. It is so long and complex. But if we don’t do something then this will also go through just like Section 66A (of the Information Technology Act) did.”

“Yeah. We need to, but first we will have to simplify it.”

“Okay. So let’s get on it. Also, let me ask around for help. I am sure people would like to chip in.”

“Sure,” said Gupta.

Nikhil then reached out to Amba Kak, a friend and graduate of the Kolkata-based National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) who is currently pursuing graduate studies at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. Kak was keen. So was Raman Jit Singh Cheema, another independent legal practitioner and friend of Pahwa.

The group knew each other well so they got down to work almost immediately, with a simple mandate—let’s cut this paper down to a size and form where it can be understood by everyone. First, let’s come up with Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). And then let’s come up with the best answers for the 20 questions asked by Trai.

Even as all this was happening, Pahwa and Gupta got on to Twitter and started posting extracts of the Trai paper, asking people to take a shot at explaining it. And also pointing out portions that they believed would violate Net neutrality. Almost around the same time, the paper also caught the attention of Reddit India, the 36,000-member entertainment, social networking, and news website community.

A member who goes by the handle “one_brown_jedi” put out a post requesting members to draft a letter to Trai. Hours later, a few moderators from Reddit India reached out to Pahwa. He told them that his team at Medianama was at work preparing an abridged version of the consultation paper, but it would be great to have Reddit India as part of it. The folks came on board.

Next, Pahwa reached out to the people at Headstart, one of India’s largest networks of early-stage start-ups. At the back of his mind, Pahwa knew that the issue of Net neutrality would have a significant impact on start-ups. And, perhaps, there was merit in the idea of talking to them directly. For that, there couldn’t be a better platform than Start-up Saturdays, an event organized by Headstart across eight cities every month. The folks at Headstart wanted in. A 15-minute slot on 11 April was agreed on.

If that wasn’t frantic enough, the same day, Pahwa mailed Gursimran Khamba of the comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB). As Pahwa puts it, AIB was at the top of his mind. “There is a common cause for freedom of expression and love for the way the Internet works,” he says. “So I just wrote to Khamba pointing him to the Trai paper and suggesting that we should do something about it.” Khamba replied that it seemed like a good idea.

Late in the evening, Pahwa and the folks at AIB—Khamba, Rohan Joshi and Tanmay Bhat—got on a conference call. “So we’d heard and read about the neutrality issue,” says Bhat. “And when the Trai paper came out and Nikhil reached out, we said that maybe we should do an explainer video. Talk about it to the audience who don’t understand the issue in detail. Simple.”

Over the next few days, as Pahwa and the rest of the team got busy with simplifying the paper, the folks at AIB started reading up and preparing to shoot a video.

But a critical problem remained. Trai hadn’t asked for a video from a bunch of stand-up comedians. Nor had it asked for a simplification of its long paper. What Trai wanted was detailed answers to each of the 20 questions it had posed. And no, a single email answer wouldn’t have cut it. If the issue had to be taken seriously, a lot of people would need to write to them. And quickly—before the deadline of 24 April.

In Pahwa’s mind, a go-to website and 15,000 emails to Trai seemed like a worthy goal. The big question was, how to get there?

It was then that Pahwa reached out to Kiran Jonnalagadda, a Bengaluru-based hacker and the founder of HasGeek, a platform for hackers. While both were passionate about Net neutrality, Jonnalagadda hadn’t been able to do much about the issue. Other than rant on Twitter. Of course, all of this changed when Pahwa called him on 1 April.

The tech and the heat

“The Trai paper had been out for three days. I was busy, so I didn’t notice,” says Jonnalagadda. “Then Nikhil called and said we should build a website so that people could send responses. For me, this was a very obvious way in which I could contribute.”

While the idea of a website might sound simple, it isn’t. Right from the word go, there were various concerns. 1. What would be a good website? 2. How do you make it easy to send responses? Because if the process is too complex, then people won’t. 3. Do you send responses on behalf of people or give them the choice of doing it themselves? 4. What if Trai said that they had received no responses? How do you keep a track? 5. How do you put together all of this, quickly?

Jonnalagadda knew this was a lot of work for one person, so he started recruiting volunteers. He first roped in an intern at HasGeek, Karthik Balakrishnan. And then he reached out to Aravind R.S., the co-founder of Scrollback, a community management start-up in Bengaluru. Incidentally, another former employee of HasGeek, Mitesh Ashar (who currently runs an export business in Kolkata), who had been watching the issue play out, reached out to help. The group got down to work.

But first, they needed a good name for the website. Well, they found two: netneutrality.in and savetheinternet.in. The former was registered by Ishan Sharma (another volunteer), in December 2014, when the Airtel story had broken out. “So it had an FAQ on Net neutrality,” says Jonnalagadda. “And Nikhil has been using that website to refer people who want more information. So we brought Ishan in.” The latter (savetheinternet.in) had been registered by Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society. Kiran reached out to Pranesh saying that it was a nice domain and it would really help the campaign. Prakash agreed. Here, it is important to point out that while Prakash came on board, right from day one, he has differed with the rest of the group on certain aspects of the Net neutrality issue.

Anyhow, a lot of people were now part of the group. And there were too many parallel things happening at the same time, which made coordination and communication difficult. So to get everyone on the same page, on 2 April, Kiran set up a Slack chat and invited all volunteers to join in. What’s Slack? It’s a real-time messaging and collaboration chat room. Oh, and just saying, it is also a one-and-a-half-year-old start-up valued at $2.8 billion.

Now back to our story. Once the domain names were sorted, the group started working on how to send the responses. Everyone agreed that a petition was out of the question. Trai didn’t want it and petitions rarely work. So, it had to be responses. And the responses would have to be detailed email answers sent by real individuals themselves. And no, just getting names and emails of random people and sending the responses to Trai from one email ID wouldn’t work. For a simple reason—it has increasingly become almost impossible to send an email on anyone’s behalf pretending to be somebody else because many servers treat it as spam.

So the group debated whether sending emails from a single server was a good idea. Which led them to the next question—does Trai have a spam filter? If it does, then there’s a problem. “So we went on a quest to find if Trai had a spam filter,” says Jonnalagadda. “How? To look for anyone who had received a mail from Trai. One look at the header and you can spot the mail server and figure if it has a spam filter or not. So we spent some time fishing for that. Do we know anybody? And can we look at the mail header? But we couldn’t find anyone.”

The single server idea was too risky. So the group decided against it and instead began working on the simplest way they could coax people to send responses from their mobile phone or desktop.

Even as all this was happening, back in New Delhi, Pahwa and the lawyers were working nights to simplify the Trai paper and put together answers to the questions. It wasn’t easy. They divided the chapters among them and created an editable Google document. “It was very important for us to ensure that we were not shooting in the blind,” says Gupta. “So we went through the financial documents of telecom companies—their public statements, investor calls and credit rating reports. On the regulatory side, we looked at theoretical and economic policy arguments—works of experts like Tim Wu, Jonathan Yoo and Barbara van Schewick. Regulatory experience of other countries like the US and Brazil. And then we adapted all the answers to an Indian context.”

It is another matter altogether that the biggest scoop in the Net neutrality debate happened on 6 April, when Pahwa broke the story on Medianama that Flipkart, India’s largest e-commerce company and the poster boy of the start-up ecosystem, had signed up for Airtel’s Zero platform.

While Flipkart did not respond to the story then, Airtel confirmed that it was launching a platform called Airtel Zero. One that would allow companies to buy data to offer their applications to consumers for free. Not just that, 150 start-ups had already agreed to be part of it. As Pahwa saw it, Zero was a complete violation of Net neutrality.

To date, the story has been shared more than 700 times each on Twitter and Facebook, and has 34 comments on Medianama. The same day, Reddit India initiated a campaign asking its members to down rate the Flipkart app and give it a 1-star rating. A post on the website, which received more than 400 comments, said: “Flipkart and Airtel are f...g with your internet. Here’s your chance to f...k with them.” It also added: “In the review field, you could paste this: ‘Net neutrality matters. www.netneutrality.in [insert clever hashtag]’”.

Whether this was an ethical thing to do was debated extensively on Slack. While the rest of the group differed and said they will be out of it, the moderators and other members of Reddit India were clear that this was the only way for an ordinary person to send a message to Flipkart and Airtel. But, more on that later.

Back on Slack, the techies figured that the smartest way to coax people to send answers was to run the script on their browser itself. The one they would use to get on the website. “So, if you are on the website,” says Mitesh Ashar. “The answers are already pre-loaded. Once you click on the email button, it opens the email in your default mail application with the Trai address and a Bcc to us. Then you can edit the answers if you like and just click send.” Simple, two clicks and out.

Of course, getting there wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Along the way, there were other complex ideas that the group decided to pass. So, for instance, Aravind came up with the idea that since the lawyers were writing multiple responses to the same question, it would perhaps be a good idea to offer the person sending the email a checklist to decide which statement to send.

“We decided not to run with that because there was the risk of confusing users,” says Kiran. “Instead what we ran with is that there are multiple answers in the default form and it selects them randomly.”

It is another matter altogether that, by 8 April, Net neutrality had become a polarizing, hot-button issue. That’s because entrepreneurs had begun taking sides. Prominent ones on the pro-Net neutrality camp: Deepinder Goyal, founder of Zomato; Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of Paytm; and Mahesh Murthy, a start-up investor and co-founder of Seedfund, an early-stage venture capital firm, among various others. Staunchly defending the idea of Airtel Zero, was well, Airtel, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) and Sachin Bansal, co-founder of Flipkart.

On 8 April, Bansal took to Twitter to share his point of view on the issue: “When foreign companies do it in India - Innovation. Indians do it - Violation. #NetNeutralityDiscrimination?”

Even as all this was happening (read: separate Twitter battles), back in Mumbai, the folks at AIB were getting impatient. Their video was ready. But the answers had still not come in. Even the website wasn’t ready. “There was so much to do. Every day seemed like a month,” says Pahwa. “And the expert answers from our initial research ran into 30 pages. We needed more people and time to simplify it.” That’s when Pahwa reached out to another friend in Bengaluru—Rohin Dharmakumar, a former journalist with the Forbes India magazine who is currently working on his own start-up. Dharmakumar joined Slack on 9 April, with a simple mandate—simplify the answers.

It was around this time that everyone agreed to a deadline. 11 April.

The Net neutrality day

On 11 April, a Saturday, at around 12.30pm, Jonnalagadda and Dharmakumar addressed the folks at the Start-up Saturday event in Bengaluru. Around the same time, another volunteer, Shreyas Srinivasan, co-founder of NH7 (a start-up that organizes music festivals) addressed the folks at the Start-up Saturday event in Mumbai. Another Headstart volunteer addressed the crowd in Pune. And Pahwa and Arpit Agarwal (another volunteer), principal at Blume Ventures (a venture capital firm), addressed the folks at Start-up Saturday in New Delhi.

At 1.22pm, AIB released its Save The Internet video on YouTube with a simple message—send your email to Trai with just 2 clicks.

At 3.24pm, the website, savetheinternet.in went live.

All hell broke loose.

By 4pm, #Savetheinternet was trending on Twitter. By 4.30pm, the email ID, netneutralityindia@gmail.com, had already received 10,000 emails. The response was beyond anyone’s expectation.

So it was only natural that back in HasGeek’s office in Bengaluru, the techies began fretting. And Slack was teeming with posts. The Gmail ID was failing the cause. “Within a couple of hours we realized that we were hitting Gmail’s rate limits,” says Kiran. Let’s explain. Gmail has a limit of about 180 emails per minute, 3,600 per hour and 86,400 per day. If you cross any of those limits, then Gmail will stop accepting mails to your account. In tech speak, this is called soft bounce, which is telling the other side to wait for some more time and send the email again. And the other side has the choice to send it again or not and Gmail tries for three days to deliver the email.

“We hit those rate limits really quickly,” says Jonnalagadda. “Then we made two more accounts and set up the website to randomly select either account. That also wasn’t enough. So we expanded to 15 accounts. Next day 30. And the next day 40 and now we are at 60. So the website randomly selects one of the 60 email addresses when you send the mail.”

Sixty Gmail accounts sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But Kiran says that’s because they had never expected such an overwhelming response and had to improvise as situations came up. There is another good reason for that: “Every service that we used is free,” says Kiran. “Slack, Gmail, all are free. And nobody is being paid to do this. All the people involved are volunteers because we didn’t want people to question who sponsored what.”

It is another matter altogether that people were busy doing something else—sending emails to Trai. More so after celebrities put their weight behind Net neutrality. Shah Rukh Khan tweeted the AIB video to his 12.6 million followers. His tweet was retweeted more than 3,000 times. Other notable celebrity mentions: Gul Panag, Ayushmann Khurrana, Arjun Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Parineeti Chopra.

By Sunday evening, 12 April, it was clear that the 100,000-email mark would be breached soon. And sometime post-midnight, on Slack, the boys decided to have some fun. So they started betting. That whoever gets the actual time right will get the opportunity to tweet the milestone first. And his tweet will be retweeted by all the others. Tanmay Bhat from AIB bet on 1.52am. Kiran, 1.57am. Karthik, the intern at HasGeek, on 1.54am. Then, Bhat changed his bet to 1.58am. And bingo, right at 1.58am, the counter breached 100,000 emails.

“It was a silly game,” says Bhat. Not so much for Karthik, though. That’s because, Bhat conceded that since he changed his bet, he wouldn’t go first. But everyone on Slack realized that Bhat had more than 586,000 followers on Twitter. So it would have been best if he tweeted the milestone. “We have like a few hundred followers, so Tanmay did that,” says Jonnalagadda. “But he decided to be gracious and retweet Karthik. And Karthik had some 300 followers at that point. After that he was complaining that his phone wouldn’t stop buzzing with RTs.”

Sustaining the campaign

By then, the issue of Net neutrality had become spirited office-cooler talk and prime-time news fodder.

Requests started pouring in from all channels. Over the course of the next few days, several members of the group appeared on television. So Bhat of AIB went for The Newshour with Arnab Goswami on Times Now. Bhat and AIB’s Khamba also went on NDTV. Pahwa went on CNBC-TV18, Rajya Sabha TV and NDTV. Dharmakumar went on CNBC Awaaz. Raman Cheema went on Ravish Kumar’s show on NDTV Hindi.

On Slack, before every interview, the members discussed the approach and the expected questions and answers. Also, they decided not to get excited and sidetracked in a personal fight. The strategy was simple—stick to the points, keep the debate non-personal. “I think we just got lucky,” says Agarwal of Blume Ventures. “So, the AIB video happened and just after that TV picked up the debate. Perhaps, because there was no other big issue to discuss. And all of it created a sort of urgency. So our initial objective that this issue must be discussed, you know that started happening.”

But perhaps the biggest victory for the group came on 14 April, when Flipkart announced that it would be walking away from the ongoing discussions with Airtel for the Airtel Zero platform. That wasn’t all. Flipkart also said that it will be working towards the larger cause of Net neutrality in India. Nobody had seen that coming.

“We all hoped for Flipkart to quit,” says Dharmakumar. “Because Flipkart is a beloved brand, which also explains why a lot of people were pissed with what it was doing.” For Dharmakumar, that was the trigger to take the discussion forward from Flipkart to other international companies. Or more specifically, Facebook and Reliance’s joint venture: Internet.org.

“It was like an organic shifting of priorities,” says Dharmakumar. “We wanted to build on that momentum so I just took a screenshot of all the partners on Internet.org and started tweeting about it, saying that Flipkart has quit, when will you?”

The strategy worked. The next day, on 15 April, Cleartrip, an online travel booking website, announced that it was getting out of Facebook’s Internet.org service. A little later, Times Internet announced that it was getting out, although conditionally. The same day, NDTV announced that it too was getting out. On Slack, the chat room was buzzing with activity. The members had tasted blood, but they wanted more. The same day, early in the evening, Huffington Post India put out a story with the headline “Blow To Internet.org As Indian Internet Companies Begin To Withdraw”.

On Slack, the members felt that, perhaps, it was time that the issue got international press attention. The question was, how?

Nilesh Trivedi, a volunteer and software engineer, who designs algorithmic trading systems at Circulum Vite, a Bengaluru-based firm, came up with the idea that an article be posted on Hacker News—a news portal of YCombinator.com, a venture capital firm, and a rich source of information for technology journalists around the world. “So if you get on to Hacker News, you have a chance to be picked up by any tech media in the US,” says Jonnalagadda. “All of them are looking there for leads.”

On 15 April, at 11.46pm, Trivedi posted the article on Hacker News. And for the next hour-and-a-half, everybody on Slack chat started “fake” discussing it on the website. “Because the way Hacker News works, if you try to up vote it, it will simply reject it,” says Jonnalagadda. “You have to instead have a decision on the post and then up vote it. Right now, the article has 170 comments or so. So the first 50 comments, it was just us talking and discussing it.” It is another matter altogether that the post attracted “real” discussion soon. So much that within three hours, at about 2.35am, it hit Page 1 and then climbed to the No. 1 spot.

The strategy worked. Brilliantly. On 16 April, the story that Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org was in trouble in India was picked up by a whole host of international publications. The Verge wrote about it. So did Business Insider. Pando Daily. The Financial Times. Slashdot.

Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: AFP

Needless to say, it also attracted the attention of Zuckerberg. On 16 April, at 10.59pm, Zuckerberg put out a lengthy post on his Facebook page, defending Internet.org.

Of course, this was more fodder for the volunteers. They had got the attention of the giant. Also, this sparked another round of posts and editorials in newspapers. In them, the team found another opportunity to defend their point of view and put out a point-by-point rebuttal to Zuckerberg’s piece.

On a lighter note, by now, the group firmly believed that they had a made a difference to the cause. So it was only natural that they began looking for a good name, something to call themselves. And no, Net neutrality wasn’t cool. On Slack, suggestions started popping up. Someone said, how about NAI? Nerd Association of India. And then another name was thrown in, LAGE RAHO: Loose Association of Geeks and Enthusiasts Reacting to Avaricious Hellspawn Operators.

Banter aside, like always, the group moved on to the next target. One that they really, really wanted.

A million mails

Sometime in the afternoon, on 20 April, a member on Slack alerted the group that the pace of emails had dropped. And it was quite likely that the campaign needed another push. To reach 1 million emails. A strategy was agreed on: Push for more celebrities to take up the cause. Also, create a hashtag, one that could tell people that the Save The Internet campaign was quite close to the 1 million mark, but remind them of any friend or family member who hadn’t sent an email yet. A hashtag was agreed on: #MillionMailMission

At the same time, another volunteer picked up the task of preparing a message, one that could be shared widely on social media. So, what’s the ballpark figure for Indian Internet users? 200 million. With a background of the Indian tricolour, the message read: “200 million Indians use the Internet. At least 0.93 million have written to Trai supporting #NetNeutrality. To the 199.07 million who haven’t yet: we need your help to #SaveTheInternet.” And then AIB was called in again. Their official Twitter handle tweeted: “Just 70,000 short of a million. Go tell a friend. http://www.savetheinternet.in”

It is another matter altogether that help arrived on 21 April from a completely unexpected quarter when NDTV reported that a strong plea was made in the Lok Sabha that day to ensure Net Neutrality. The issue was raised during Zero Hour by M.B. Rajesh of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who alleged that the consultation paper brought out by Trai was “blatantly supporting” an assault on Net neutrality by telecom and Internet service providers. The story was shared widely on social media.

And then, on the morning of 22 April, the unthinkable happened. Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi asked for a debate on Net neutrality in Parliament. The news was everywhere. So were memes. And trolls. And needless to say, fresh publicity for the cause.

Early in the morning, on 23 April, it was clear that the 1 million milestone would be breached sometime in the afternoon. To prepare for it, the group got busy getting press releases ready and designing posters, which would go out at the exact same moment.

At 12.34pm, Bulletin Babu (the Twitter bot that counted the emails) hit 999,811. Almost immediately, someone suggested: “Guys, please use #MillionMailMission and #SaveTheInternet in your tweets. Let’s try and make those ‘trend’, much as I hate the concept.” At 12.40pm, the countdown began.

10

“When Sachin takes his time to go from 92 to 100”

9

8

7

“Let’s all cheer for BABU”

“Go Babu!”

“BABUUUUUUU!”

“Babu, Bro, Love”

“I’d like to dedicate this to COAI, Trai, DoT and Kapil Sibal’s poems”

“Rofl”

At 12.42pm, the milestone was crossed. The crowd on Slack erupted. GIFs were shared. So were high-fives and congratulatory messages. The online party continued.

Much later, around 10.30pm, someone suggested that the Save The Internet group should hold a physical meeting soon. Someone else said that it would be good to have T-shirts, laptop stickers or badges. Just for keepsakes. Yeah, a T-shirt would be epic. And as things go, in such forums, and more so in this group, someone came up with a really smart line: “I saved the Internet and all I got was this stupid T-shirt”.

But, it was getting late. And the banter didn’t last long. Just 15 minutes or so. And then the group moved on, like always. To focus on the next task at hand. COAI was going to have a press conference the next day (24 April) at 11am. Maybe there was merit in putting out a post—questions journalists attending the COAI conference might want to ask the telecom chief executives?

But it was really late. Who will be up so late to work on it?

A few seconds later, a volunteer said that she would. No problem.

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