There’s a Lot to Learn From India’s Internet Freedom Movement
What are some lessons learned from the person who led one of the most important victories for the open Internet, namely, the massive Save The Internet campaign in India?
A few weeks back I had the pleasure of meeting India-based digital rights advocate Nikhil Pahwa while he traveled through OpenMedia’s home town of Vancouver, Canada. Our meeting has been haunting me in the best way possible -- all the inspiration and a flood of exciting ideas!
Nikhil led the massive Save The Internet campaign in India that mobilised over a million people and won what is easily one of most important victories for the open Internet (Net Neutrality to be specific) in the world. Their campaign beat back both telecom giants and FaceBook’s fake Internet plan for India. Prior to his work on Net Neutrality, Nikhil founded the online Indian tech/policy magazine Medianama, where he continues on as Editor & Publisher.
Nikhil is now setting up an organisation similar to OpenMedia in India called the Internet Freedom Foundation(IFF) that will “defend Freedom of Speech, Privacy and our Digital Commons.” The person who connected Nikhill and I thought I might have some advice for him regarding how best to build a digital rights organization. Although I think I learned far more from him about new forms of distributed civic engagement than what I could’ve taught him about organization/community development.
That said, in a lot of ways IFF is very much at an early stage in the development path OpenMedia has been on over the last several years. The Save The Internet campaign sounds a lot like our Stop The Meter movement here in Canada several years ago. Now Nikhill, as we did, is wisely working to build a platform and community that can safeguard digital rights over the long term.
While I happily recounted how OpenMedia worked from that Stop the Meter spark to build an effective campaigns team and vibrant community, Nikhill had many fresh ideas on how to build a participatory organization and movement there, that were both new and exciting to me.
Beyond geeking out on tactics (which we did for quite some time) we both quickly noticed an uncanny similarity in our approach -- maximizing community participation, stressing our commonality over differences, and crowdsourcing both campaign strategy and our policy positions. I’m sometimes frustrated when some collaborators are satisfied to be invited to have a seat at the table of decision-making, to be in the club. Nikhill seemed to completely get that we don’t want to be in the club; the existence of a special club of elites is the problem. Even within the digital rights world there are very few organizations that embrace this mode of operation, but this is obviously already in the DNA of of the IFF.
My favourite part of talking with Nikhill is that he reminded me that we’re really in an important historical moment right now that will dictate how much control we have over key technologies that will increasingly shape our world and what we are as a species. Sometimes the weight of the danger and possibility of this moment can feel daunting, but Nikhill is one of those people that can zero in on what needs to be done while also refusing to be bound by what many would say are limitations, powerful interests and tough odds.
When I got up to leave I turned back to Nikhill and I said, “I have to tell you, I feel a bit like we’re something like the same person, just living across the world. It’s like I’m looking into some kind of mirror right now.” Nikhil responded with an earnest smile and a nod that said to me “I’ll see you on the interwebs”.
When I got home I looked up Nikhill on Twitter and found that like me he had entered his Twitter location as “the Internet”.
What a delightful human and an inspiring blossoming Internet freedom movement in India for us all to learn from. Watch out for future collaborations!
And stayed tuned to Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) to see what they do next!