The Man Who Rallied India Against Facebook Worries Digital Nationalism Has Gone Too Far

“It’s almost like we have China envy.”

Will Oremus
OneZero
Published in
7 min readAug 14, 2020

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Indian flag and Chinese flag are displayed on a laptop screen behind a smart phone displaying a symbol of “block”
Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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.

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