India is having its internet uprising, and many Western activists can’t figure out what to do about it.
Since the spring of 2015, Indian activists have built ferocious momentum against Facebook’s bid to take charge of the nation’s internet through a program called “Free Basics”.
Formerly called “Internet Zero,” Free Basics’s pitch has been: we’ll get “the next billion internet users” (that is, poor people in developing nations) connected by cutting deals with local phone companies. Under these deals, there will be no charge for accessing the services we hand pick. We will define the internet experience for these technologically unsophisticated people, with our products at the centre and no competition. It’s philanthropy!
India’s net neutrality activists have a crisp name for this: “Poor Internet for Poor People”. They rallied thousands, then tens of thousands, and eventually millions under that banner. They marched in the streets, they took to the net, and they terrorized companies that partnered with Facebook, one-starring their apps until they pulled out.
They refused to accept Facebook’s claims of charity and development, pointing to Wikipedia’s experiment in sub-Saharan countries, which ended up providing light reading for the country’s elites during commutes, but not reaching significant numbers of the poor people they were aiming for. India’s net-fighters sent Facebook back to the drawing board.
Western activists didn’t know what to make of this. At one meeting – details withheld to protect the well-meaning – some of my colleagues pondered setting up an ad-driven alternative to Facebook’s Poor Internet, anything to compete.
I’m afraid I got a little shouty. Here we have India’s SOPA moment: an unexpected, unprecedented uprising that’s caught the popular imagination, terrified one of the largest companies in the world, made politicians and regulators take notice. Why aren’t we supporting them in what they’re asking for? Why aren’t we just saying, “The alternative to Facebook as internet gatekeeper is no one as internet gatekeeper?”
India’s activists didn’t need our help. They never blinked.
Facebook came back for a second round, with the Free Basics rebranding, right around the time that the independent Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) put out a short, cogent consultation paper asking pointed questions. It’s only 11 pages long, and it ends with four questions, and you should read it – it’s just the kind of thing you want from an independent expert agency.
No one at Facebook appeared to read it. The company mounted a charm offensive, featuring long, soulful letters from Mark Zuckerberg in the national papers, roadside billboards, multi-page newspaper adverts, floods of SMSes. A total media blitz aimed at getting people to respond to the TRAI’s paper and say they endorsed Free Basics. They really pulled out all the stops – some Indian Facebook users reported that merely scrolling past the ads pleading with them to weigh in was enough to trigger a status update saying they’d endorsed the idea.
It worked: Facebook got millions of comments into the TRAI. But unfortunately for Facebook the TRAI paper hadn’t asked, “Do you support Free Basics?” So the entirety of Facebook’s astroturf army was discarded as unresponsive to the questions raised in the paper. The TRAI’s chairman explained: “Consultations by the TRAI are not opinion polls; we are not asking ‘yes’ or ‘no’. We are asking why you think it is ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because that helps us in formulating the guidelines”
It was remarkably ham-fisted on Facebook’s part. Someone should be fired over this. That was a huge waste of money and credibility in a fight that Facebook clearly sees as vital to its future.
India – and the rest of the world’s developing nations – are vital to the future of the internet. The “next billion” will do as much to shape it as the three billion of us who’ve found our way online already.
Previous bids to enclose the net (*cough* Microsoft *cough*) have been fought off by competitors, notably Google. For more than a decade, Google believed (correctly, it seems) that anything that made the internet bigger, made Google richer. And it was willing to spend to get more people connected and writing and reading the web in as many ways as possible.
But that was the old Google, before large slices of the internet started disappearing into apps and Facebook’s walled gardens. These days, senior Googlers I know are grim about the web’s future. One old hand told me that they wouldn’t be surprised if, in five years, the web was where Usenet is today – a distant memory of Unix greybeards who remember the wide-open, federated internet that no company could steer. User researchers today speak of young people who have no search history, who answer every question by asking friends on one of Facebook’s many networks.
Last August, Google supported Facebook’s fight against Indian Net Neutrality, pressuring its influential Indian industry association not speak out against Facebook’s plan.
This is the downside of expecting Google to solve your problems. Whatever stewardship role the company has taken over the internet in years gone by has been hamstrung by its insecurity about other giants: less anarchic, more top-down, more adult companies that seem to know what they’re doing. It used to be that if you wanted to get Google to do something stupid (like agree to censor its offerings in China), you just needed to get Yahoo to do it first. Now that Yahoo is receding in Google’s rear-view mirror, you get it to do stupid things (like setting up another “real-name” based social network like G+) by getting Facebook to do it.
Google does want to do something about “the next billion”, too. The company’s Project Zero has drawn influential and ambitious engineers from across the firm. If they’re smart, they’ll figure out how to offer something Facebook couldn’t offer, not something Facebook will always be better at. Rather than an also-ran like G+, what about a social network that connected itself across whatever open web presence you had, using the search-engine’s web-crawling expertise to help you connect with your friends on the open web, in embeddable Youtube-style widgets you can post to Facebook itself?
Rather than teaming up with the developing world’s universally loathed mobile companies to get them to zero-rate your offerings, why not optimize Android for P2P file-sharing of material downloaded and cached at wifi hotspots – file swapping being a very common, sociable practice already in play across the developing world – treating the telcos like the enemies of progress that they have always been, joining with users in subverting and sidelining them?
India’s got millions of activists with an open internet bandwagon we should all be jumping on, and the next billion will go to the company that figures out how to work with them.