Nikhil Pahwa is an Indian entrepreneur, journalist, publisher and founder and owner of MediaNama, an India-based mobile and digital news portal. He has been a key commentator on stories and debates around Indian digital media companies, censorship and Internet and mobile regulation in India.
As entrepreneurs go, Nikhil Pahwa is no Mark Zuckerberg. His startup, MediaNama, is tiny. Based in New Delhi, it is a news site that covers the digital and telecom industries. It employs little more than a handful of journalists and its focus is entirely local.
But Pahwa can claim one distinction that Zuckerberg can’t — he’s given a talk at the exclusive TED conference. It happened just last week, at the annual TED gathering in Vancouver. The topic: how Pahwa led the campaign that derailed Facebook’s plan to provide free, but limited, Internet access in India through a program called Free Basics.
The defeat was a huge setback for Facebook, and personally for Zuckerberg, who has put a substantial amount of effort and personal capital behind Internet.org, the Facebook-led organization whose goal is to bring online the two-thirds of the world’s population that remains offline.
So why would anyone object to free Internet for the poor, for those who can’t afford data plans? The answer: Facebook’s Free Basics didn’t offer free Internet; it offered access to a limited set of sites — including Facebook – and on Facebook’s terms. Facebook would determine which sites qualified for Free Basics. Facebook and its telco allies have argued that users who get a taste of the Internet through Free Basics will quickly realize its value and sign up for unrestricted, paid access. But to Pahwa and his cohort, Facebook was putting itself in a position to pick winners and losers, and in the process, break the Internet.
“One of the things we need to never forget is that it’s one Internet,” Pahwa, who is a TED “fellow” told the audience, which responded with a standing ovation. “What you access here, what you access in the United States, what you access in Mexico, Indonesia, anywhere in the world is the same. We need to ensure that the Internet doesn’t get fragmented and that it’s all the Internet for all the people all the time.”
Pahwa agreed to meet me right after his talk, and as we sat down on a pair of couches on the upper floors of the Vancouver Convention Center, he didn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would take on one of the world’s most powerful corporations. He is short, with a round face framed by wire-rimmed glasses and topped by closed-cropped hair. He is polite and understated and has an easy smile. At 35, he is Zuckerberg’s elder by 4 years.
Pahwa did not set out to pick a fight with Facebook. It was Facebook who jumped into a fight he was having with India’s telecom carriers, he says.
Telecom operators had been lobbying regulators for rules that would allow them to charge website owners to make their sites accessible. Worse, different sites would be charged different rates, essentially setting up the carriers are arbiters of who would succeed and fail in India. Access to some sites could be slowed down or speeded up. Some services, like Internet telephony, could be stopped altogether, and website operators would have to take out a license. The rules were an affront to the principles of “net neutrality,” which have largely applied to the Internet globally. In a world where a new site would have to ask for permission to connect to a global audience, innovation and freedom of expression would be severely undermined.
“The battle for net neutrality is a battle for Internet freedom,” Pahwa says.
The lobbying seemed to work. A little over a year ago, India’s telecom regulator came up with a proposed set of rules that largely sided with the carriers. That’s when Pahwa, who had led fights against Internet censorship, sprang into action.
“We realized the Internet would never be the same again,” Pahwa says. “I couldn’t let that happen, because it’s personal.”
Pahwa began calling friends, who, in turn, called other friends. Pretty soon, they had rallied a group of bloggers, journalists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, technologists, policy wonks and celebrities, who created a group called Savetheinternet.in.
The group’s first goal was modest: 15,000 emails to India’s telecom regulator from concerned citizens opposing the proposed rules. In just 12 days, one million people wrote the regulators urging them to support net neutrality. In a country where regulation typically happens in a vacuum and with little public participation, this was unprecedented. ”There’s no way we could have predicted how much people would connect with this issue,” Pahwa tells me.
Still, the battle was not won. Regulators went silent for 8 months, giving no indication of how they would rule. And during that time, Facebook jumped in with its offering, which initially was branded as Internet.org.
“For about 70% of time, we weren’t battling Facebook,” Pahwa says. “We were battling the carriers. Facebook made it about themselves.”
Pahwa says he supports the idea of giving away free Internet access, but not if it means only some sites are accessible and not if it puts a private company with a huge economic stake in India’s Internet development as a gatekeeper.
What ensued was a battle for the hearts and minds of India’s population. Facebook spent millions of dollars advertising Free Basics. Pahwa and his allies rallied members of parliament, entertainers and film stars to their cause. They pressured some India’s largest Internet companies, which had initially backed Internet.org, to withdraw their support.
In April of last year, Zuckerberg himself weighed in, with a passionate defense of Internet.org, saying its offering did not violate net neutrality. Still, opposition kept mounting, and in September, regulators suggested they would oppose Facebook’s efforts. That led the company to make changes to its rules for its so-called “zero rating” Internet access for some sites and renaming the offering Free Basics. The battle continued with more advertising from Facebook, and increasingly pointed accusations and counter-accusations flying from both sides.
In early February of this year, while Pahwa was in the United States on a speaking tour, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India sided with Pahwa, essentially banning Free Basics.
Just this week, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Zuckerberg said he was disappointed by the decision and admitted it represented a major setback. But he vowed to press on with Internet.org and its mission, as it develops different approaches that work in different countries.
Pahwa says he shares Facebook’s goal to offer more connectivity, but not at the expense of net neutrality. “Why do we have to choose between universal access and net neutrality?” he asks. Others have found ways to offer free data without limiting what sites are accessible, he adds. “Who has a right to limit people’s access to the Internet? Especially for new users, it is important to allow them to roam freely.”
The upshot of the battle with Facebook, he says, is a more aware and engaged Indian public that has transformed the power dynamics of India’s Internet.
“This entire effort was a volunteer-driven effort,” he says. “Everyone contributed because there was a sense of purpose to retain our freedom.” Pahwa adds: “Now everyone in India has an opinion on net neutrality and understands what’s at stake. Internet policy in India will never again be made in a vacuum.” The new NGO he created, the Internet Freedom Foundation, will make sure that’s the case.