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.