The Man Who Rallied India Against Facebook Worries Digital Nationalism Has Gone Too Far
Six years before India shook the global internet by banning TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps, Nikhil Pahwa was trying to convince his country to care about tech policy. It was October 2014, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was selling India’s leaders and public on a vision of a free, Facebook-centric internet that would bring hundreds of millions of people online. Pahwa, the founding editor of the media and technology blog MediaNama, wasn’t buying it. “What Zuckerberg means by internet for all is essentially Facebook for all,” he warned.
Facebook’s Internet.org — later renamed Free Basics — would violate the principle of net neutrality, Pahwa argued, by allowing free access to a set of sites handpicked by Facebook itself, a practice known as “zero-rating.” While India had yet to adopt net neutrality, Pahwa’s critique soon caught on amid a growing sense that Facebook was treating India like a sort of digital colony. He spearheaded a movement called Save the Internet that ultimately succeeded in mobilizing the public, passing net neutrality, and booting out Free Basics for good. While Facebook continued the project in other countries, it never fully recovered.
In the wake of that victory, the Indian internet has boomed, with cheap data rates from India’s own Reliance Jio telecom helping to bring hundreds of millions online, making India the world’s second-largest internet market. Tech policy, once a niche, has become central to the country’s politics. Yet it has also taken on an increasingly protectionist bent that Pahwa worries will undermine his goal of an open, global internet in which India can be a major player. Now, the country that Zuckerberg once saw as virgin territory for Facebook to colonize is at the forefront of a surge of digital nationalism around the world.
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