Online activism comes of age in India

The net, they say, is a perfect place for activism to happen. How else can people from all over the world keep in touch with each other, almost in real time, independent of time zones, all for the price of a local call ?

Better still, activists also have Gilmore's Law on their side:

The net treats censorship as damage and routes around it.

In India, however, the story is a little different. The people who would be most effective at activism - voluntary organisations and individuals - usually weren't aware of what the net could do for them, even if they had access to it, which they usually didn't.

But that is beginning to change.

The Background

In the bad old days, there was only ERNET. And net access was restricted to the lucky few who could beg, borrow or steal an account on it. So, the online scene was mainly confined to the BBSes - and what a vibrant and rollicking atmosphere it was ! Everybody knew everybody else, it seemed, and the air was thick with ideas, jokes and (usually friendly) insults. Quite the collegial atmosphere. Ideal breeding ground for activism, should it be needed.

And quite suddenly, it was needed.

The BBSes, which were run by enthusiasts in their spare time using funds from their own pocket, were suddenly deemed to be profit-making corporate entites worthy of taxation. And the DoT doesn't believe in half-measures. They wanted Rs1.5 MILLION annually from each BBS operator as "license fee". Obviously, no operator could afford to pay that kind of money. There was an uproar, and a group called FREE was formed. They won. The license fee was withdrawn. You can read about it here. And this was India's first brush with online activism.

That isn't my story, though. I want to talk about what happened later. What's happening now, in fact. India's next great brush with online activism, and why it's different this time.

Reach out and touch someone

Ever since VSNL opened its doors to the public as India's one and only ISP in 1995, response has been good. Braving lack of dial-in lines, lack of infrastructure and lack of technical knowledge of the support staff, the Indian public has been sampling what the net has to offer at an ever growing rate. And one of the "killer apps" on the net has been the ability to call people anywhere. Even if they don't have a net connection. For the price of a local call.

Naturally, VSNL also the monopoly provider of overseas telecom service, isn't happy about this. In fact, they insert a clause into their terms of service banning this. But they're on shaky legal ground here. And it's probably unenforcable technically too. Besides, everybody's doing it.

And there it stood. People were checking out Voice on the net, and VSNL was quietly fuming in the background.

Until recently. When they decided to do something about it, and block access to some of the popular websites promoting voice on the net. They did this by configuring their hardware to report that these sites were "inaccessible", whenever anyone tried to go to these sites on the web.

The online community reacted with outrage. And they're doing something about it. A petition has been filed by Dr. Arun Mehta with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to overturn the "ban", and to make VSNL cease and desist from such "bans" in future.

What is interesting, however, is that this time, the activism seems to be qualitatively different.

Activism ? Huh ?

The BBS license issue never really made national headlines. It was fought and won in obscurity, and mostly by techies. The man on the street never heard of it, and wouldn't have cared if he did. Now, however, the following factors have come into play:

  • The number of internet users in India is reaching critical mass.
  • There exists a watchdog body in the form of the TRAI
  • Private ISPs are just around the corner
  • The non-techie is willing to get involved, this time.

    Activism. Yeah!

    Online activism looks like entering a vibrant phase in India. This is going to be interesting. Stay tuned.

    Udhay Shankar N <> is a Random Networking Enthusiast who collects interesting people.