India’s Net neutrality crusaders24 min read 09 May 2015, 11:13 AM IST
Meet the random collective that brought the Net neutrality debate to the national consciousness
It is not like Nikhil Pahwa, 34, was born to fight for the principle of Net neutrality.
“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.
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. https://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.
“When Sachin takes his time to go from 92 to 100"
“Let’s all cheer for BABU"
“Babu, Bro, Love"
“I’d like to dedicate this to COAI, Trai, DoT and Kapil Sibal’s poems"
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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