India’s Save The Internet breaks up

The resignations came in quick succession. Both, planned.

Kiran Jonnalagadda went first. Resigning from the board of trustees at Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), an Internet advocacy nonprofit. On 28 August. Via an email to the trustees, sent at 23:08. Nikhil Pahwa* followed an hour later. Resigning from his position as chairman of IFF. In an email sent to the trustees, at 00:10. 29 August.

A few weeks later, in a public statement, Pahwa said: “The organisation, which was set up by a few volunteers from SaveTheInternet.in (which was a community initiative with over 150 volunteers and several supporting organisations), has a new Executive Director in Apar Gupta*. This marks a change, since, so far, all IFF trustees have been volunteers, with pre-existing commitments to their day jobs…I have not been involved in an executive capacity with IFF for almost a year now, and have learnt of its initiatives from public announcements, for most of 2018. Thus, my departure from the organisation will not affect its functioning, and I sense that its intent remains intact, even if the intended approach has differed from mine for a while.”

Pahwa’s statement was a crisp 743 words. A significantly condensed version of his 3,000-word first draft—a long, detailed list of disagreements with IFF and its members. One that never saw the light of day.

To the trustees of IFF, including board members, the resignations didn’t come as a surprise.

There had been murmurs. And most of them had known this for a while. Witnessed it first hand. The chasm. The discomfort of being together in a room, on a call. Yet they tried, for one last time. For old time’s sake. Let’s get together. All eight of us on the board. Jonnalagadda. Pahwa. Gupta. Rachita Taneja. Raman Cheema. Aravind RS. Karthik Balakrishnan. Rohin Dharmakumar*. Let’s all meet in Bengaluru. Bury our disagreements, formally accept the resignations and then make Gupta’s appointment official. Grab some lunch after that, and then go our separate ways.

Aravind, who had moved to Singapore almost 16 months back, led the conversation. With more than a month’s notice, sometime in July, he alerted the group, I’ll be travelling to India in August. How about all of us meet then? Anytime between 25th to 30th of the month. Works?

Everyone started tweaking their schedule around the dates. Gupta and Cheema said they’d be happy to fly down from New Delhi. Jonnalagadda said he could book a conference room at WeWork in Embassy Golf Links. Taneja said she’d be in Bengaluru and glad to catch up. After much back and forth, almost everyone agreed to meet at around 11 AM on 29 August. A Wednesday.

The same morning, everyone woke up to the two resignations. But a date is a date, so they showed up.

Everyone, except for Pahwa and Dharmakumar.

It is the strangest thing. Time. And what it can do to relationships. Because not long back, in 2016, this group of people were thick as thieves. At a time when they barely knew each other. But still, they were working together day and night. Writing blogs. Press releases. Stand up comedy scripts. Email campaigns. Drafting legal strategies. Side by side, online and offline. Conference calling each other, almost every hour with a singular goal. Whatever happens, we cannot let Facebook get away with Free Basics in India.

Free Basics

Free Basics is Facebook’s free, limited Internet service for developing markets. It was thought of by Mark Zuckerberg as an idea to bring millions of people online for the first time. Right from the start, it has been a subject of controversy and has also been called a walled garden

And then they won.

Together, this motley group created the largest, most significant internet activism movement this country has ever seen. Together they created Save The Internet. Together they created hope. That, in a country where millions of lives will be impacted by the Internet, there were people who cared. Who would fight for your rights. Unafraid of the powers that be. Together they created a great story of human willpower and ambition. One worthy of believing. One worthy of telling.

This story is about everything that happened after.

“If not this then what does IFF stand for?”

Things came to a head sometime in December 2017.

Aadhaar

Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique identity number for Indians based on their biometric and demographic data. The tussle over the mandatory usage of Aadhaar and its security issues have been subjects of controversy

Both Pahwa and Jonnalagadda had been working feverishly on a series of anti-Aadhaar campaigns. Their view was—and continues to be—simple: Aadhaar is evil. It must go. After scuttling Facebook’s Free Basics, they’d decided that Aadhaar deserved all their attention. So they were putting everything behind it. Time and resources to mobilise people and campaigns. And at every stage of their activism, they wondered about IFF. About the organisation’s role in the anti-Aadhaar fight. After all, they were IFF’s founding members.

For the most part, IFF had steered clear of any activism directly related to Aadhaar. Instead, the organisation focused on data protection laws, Right to Privacy, and internet shutdowns. Everything related to building a conversation around a free and open internet in India.

For a while now, IFF’s reluctance to jump into the muddy, biometric waters didn’t sit well with either Pahwa or Jonnalagadda.

It was around this time that the duo was working on a campaign called Speak For Me. It was timed brilliantly. Just weeks before the commencement of the winter session of the parliament. The idea was simple in its ingenuity; very much like Save The Internet. Any individual concerned about Aadhaar could visit speakforme.in and hit send on an already drafted email to a Member of Parliament (MP). All the user had to do was select her state and constituency from a drop-down list, which would automatically fetch the MP’s email ID, and hit send.

The objective was that flooded with emails from concerned individuals from their respective constituencies, MPs would file questions on Aadhaar in Parliament. And inundated with questions from MPs, the government would be forced to respond. Or not. Both outcomes could then be used for further activism. At the time, Jonnalagadda said: “We want the Parliament to discuss this. Everyone has been receiving harassing SMSes and calls to link their Aadhaar to mobile phones and bank accounts. This is coercion. The technology behind Aadhaar is broken in many ways. Coercion will make it worse. It has to be fixed before it is forced on people.”

Even as all this was happening, Pahwa and Jonnalagadda brought up IFF. What could IFF do to help with this campaign? Spread the word, perhaps? Help with technical expertise or manpower? Anything?

Nothing.

“Both Apar and Raman weren’t kicked about the campaign,” says a person in the know, who requested not to be named because he didn’t want to upset anyone. This, according to the same person, led Pahwa and Jonnalagadda to question the point and purpose of IFF. Aadhaar, they reasoned, would impact Indians on an unprecedented scale. If IFF wouldn’t put its weight behind their anti-Aadhaar campaign, then IFF was a hollow organisation.

It would be fair to say that time plays remarkable tricks on memory.

Because just a year and a half ago, IFF had been the dream.

“IFF was created to continue from where Save The Internet left”

For many Indians, championing the cause of a free and open internet stopped once the Net Neutrality campaign was won. When Facebook’s Free Basics was defeated. When the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) had been jolted from its slumber. At the time, there were victory laps. Victory blog posts. Twitter threads. Facebook posts. News pieces. Magazine features. Men’s magazine GQ even called Pahwa the father of India’s fight for internet freedom.

But even as everyone was celebrating, anointing heroes for the cause, a few were worried about what was to come next. Worried that perhaps, this was only the start of something bigger and more sinister. Something that would unfold in the coming years. Where political parties and business interests would try their best to make the internet work for them. Not for the country. And with nobody in particular to create awareness and education about the importance of a free and open Internet, India would then descend into chaos.

On the phone, Apar Gupta sounds a little on the edge. A practising advocate in the Supreme Court of India, he has just moved into the executive position of running IFF on a daily basis. To do that, he has put his practice on hold and isn’t sure if the media lens on IFF will create complexity that is best avoided. “I guess it will help,” he says finally. “Help us do things in a better, more transparent way.”

But that’s also how IFF started. When Gupta, Pahwa and Raman Cheema (another Supreme Court advocate) got together and decided that a transparent organisation should take over from a loose, volunteer collective. In April of 2016, IFF began life as a trust. Its eight trustees were spread across the country. “All of us agreed that this will need long-term engagement,” says Gupta. “IFF was created where Save The Internet left. This means advocacy, lobbying for regulations and going to court. These were all learnings from Save The Internet. That there needs to be a core decision-making structure. It can’t be that I am going ahead and doing this today, and something else tomorrow. And the name we chose, Internet Freedom Foundation is representative of our broader engagement on digital rights issues, for an open and free internet in India.”

iSpirt & Aadhaar

For the longest time, iSpirt has been a vocal supporter of Aadhaar and how it can be used to help businesses get access to customers

Fair to say that even in its early days, the group had disagreements. Not many people remember this, but the folks behind India Software Products Internet Round Table (iSpirt) and the current anti-Aadhaar activists, who can’t see eye-to-eye anymore, were once part of the same Slack group that brought you Save The Internet.

Early in 2016, IFF opened its charter for feedback to almost everyone. Some 150-odd members on the Save The Internet Slack community. Needless to say, almost everyone had something to say. And not everyone agreed. “There were differences on several things,” says Gupta. “On privacy. On the focus being consumer rights or fundamental rights. For instance, do we limit the organisation focus to net-neutrality, or make it broader? We adopted a charter and opened it up to comment to the people who were present on the Slack. That Slack still exists, and most members, weeks after the net-neutrality decision, became inactive. This also indicated the need for an organisation. So we moved ahead because work needed to be done.”

Soon after, IFF started picking its battles. It went after privacy. Where it said that privacy is a fundamental right. It carried out a signature campaign of more than 500 signatures, urging the government of India to take Right to Privacy seriously. IFF also put its back into decriminalising the Speech Bill, where it campaigned for bringing an end to criminal defamation because it hinders people from speaking their mind online. The organisation also campaigned heavily against internet shutdowns in the country. It helped file several Right to Information (RTI) petitions, helped create a video by comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB), among several other initiatives.

Then, in 2017, the Aadhaar tinderbox exploded.

While Pahwa and Jonnalagadda found themselves neck deep in the campaign against it, questions started to be asked about the purpose of IFF if it wasn’t campaigning against Aadhaar.

Gupta declined to speak on the issue of Aadhaar and the disagreements inside IFF. More on that later.

On 20 July 2018, Gupta told all his trustees that he wanted to run IFF full-time. All, minus Pahwa. Because, by this time, there had been a complete communication breakdown between the two. Over one-on-one calls, Gupta informed everyone of his decision. Almost everyone agreed that if that’s what Gupta believed in, and if he was willing to run the risk of putting his career on hold for it, then he should. Also, in the nature of a group that takes itself seriously, the trustees asked Gupta to put together a future plan of action. Along the lines of a business plan. What are the resources IFF will need? Both in terms of people and money. How will it go about fundraising? Who will be paid salaries? What are the issues IFF will focus on? How will it build a community around its activities?

On 12 August, Gupta shared his plan with all the trustees. A 27-page document laying out the future course of action, organisational structure and roles and responsibilities. A few weeks later, Jonnalagadda and Pahwa called it quits.

“I can see why the disagreements happened”

Aravind RS speaks slowly, in a matter-of-fact tone. He takes his time answering questions, sometimes pausing for more than 15 seconds, before he finally says, okay. When he is done, he stops. No additional comment or stream-of-consciousness extras. We’ve been chatting for a while now. He is a founding member of IFF and is still on its board. Even during his time at the organisation, Aravind worked closely with Pahwa and Jonnalagadda on their independent Aadhaar campaigns. We are discussing if the trustees ever met in person. All together in one room.

“I can’t recall all eight of us having ever met in person,” he says.

Not even once?

“I think we have only had two full board meetings. One was long back and in the first meeting, everyone, except me and Rohin, was there. The second one, which happened this August, Rohin and Nikhil were not there.”

What happened with the resignations?

“I think with IFF, we could have done a lot more. There were many other things we should have taken up. But we were low on resources and our primary attention was somewhere else. At some level, all of us had something else going on. People had other commitments. Personally, I had family commitments. There were disagreements for sure. Kiran and Nikhil left because they had disagreements about how the organisation should function in general.”

A large part of it was related to strategy and not causes

Aravind RS

How?

“Like, I can see why the disagreements happened. A large part of it was related to strategy and not causes. Like their style of working. Kiran and Nikhil have a more startup background. Raman and Apar, they tend to work in a different manner. There is a disconnect there. For instance, I felt that Save The Internet was a leaderless campaign, a whole bunch of volunteers without a centralised organisation. Kiran and Nikhil would like to continue that model. They didn’t agree to centralised planning and strategy. Apar and Raman believed the model should be more persistent as an organisation which is leading the volunteers. Not like the volunteers are excited about it one day and lose interest another day. Their idea is to catalyse the community of volunteers and there is a sustainable way of doing it through an organisation. This was the root of disagreement because of these two worldviews. Should IFF be grassroots-driven or an organisation leading it.”

I think that certainly played a role, but it also had to do with the disagreement on Aadhaar activism.

“To be honest, we had the main question, are we going to be involved in Aadhaar? We were not sure if this is something that IFF should pick up. If IFF should have a role in campaigning against Aadhaar.”

You were part of the Speak For Me campaign. What happened there?

“Again, there was a difference in opinion on how to go about it. If you ask me, in terms of strategy, asking people to send emails to telecom companies and banks, and members of parliament, it didn’t really become an effective tool. Speak For Me came from people who aren’t activists. The idea was let’s do a campaign that will make their voice heard. But how will that matter was not thought about. It worked well as a volunteer mobilisation campaign but that’s not how Apar and Raman saw IFF or its work. They were in favour of centralised thinking, planning and influencing.”

Tell me something Aravind, all of you guys were thick, I’d like to go with the word ‘friends’, so this timeline bothers me. Apar says he wants to put his legal practice on hold and join IFF full-time in July. And within a month, two significant founding members jump ship. At a time when, perhaps, he’d need the whole team to stick together and make something of IFF because it is a big decision and nobody knows what’s coming. Did this cross your mind?

Aravind: “It did. After Apar submitted his plan, I spoke to all three of them. Apar said that he sees IFF as the Indian equivalent of Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in the US. When I spoke to Kiran and Nikhil, they said they do not share that vision. Not as not EFF, just as a community-centric model.”

“No structure to accommodate others doing good work”

Earlier this month, I reached out to both Pahwa and Jonnalagadda for perspective.

When I met Jonnalagadda in Bengaluru, he said he’s worried how this story would turn out depending on who chooses to reveal how much. “I don’t think it will be fair to anyone,” he said. Sometime later, he sent a detailed response to a set of questions. “I had a recurring frustration with IFF being for its trustees alone, with no structure to accommodate others doing good work on their own accord,” he said. “We believed our key lesson from Save The Internet was to make it easier for the next generation of campaigners, by sharing our learnings in forms that others could apply.”

Both Pahwa and Jonnalagadda said that this was at the heart of the disagreement. And it manifested in several forms. Like during the Speak For Me campaign, as Pahwa recounts. “A reason for my resignation, and you might be aware of this since your co-founder Rohin Dharmakumar would have a copy of my resignation, was that IFF declined to do a campaign on Aadhaar, to help people push back against mandatory linking of Aadhaar, last November-end/early December. Many people in our communities and among our followers on Twitter, had been reaching out to Kiran and me for help. Kiran had proposed a campaign to IFF, and they declined. I thought that was a failure on part of IFF to ignore what was clearly the biggest issue concerning digital rights in India.”

I strongly disagree with the idea that I wanted a personality-driven organisation

Nikhil Pahwa

Throughout the research for this piece, the term “volunteer-led organisation” came up in almost all discussions. That, and in contrast, the charge of a “personality-led organisation”. Both were used interchangeably with negative connotations. Some referred to Pahwa as the flag-bearer of an organisation driven by personalities. Where the organisation provides a platform and tools for activists to get their message across. And that this idea was a point of friction between Gupta and Pahwa.

“I strongly disagree with the idea that I wanted a personality-driven organisation,” said Pahwa. “If anything, I wanted the organisation to be about the community, and for more people in the community to be involved, and get prominence. The issues matter. I don’t. I didn’t see myself as holding a position at IFF for too long, and from the very beginning, wanted us to plan for next-gen leadership. Also, the difference of opinion isn’t mine alone. Kiran Jonnalagadda, who has also resigned for reasons similar to mine, and Aravind Ravi-Suleka, who remains on board, also believes that IFF should be community-led. There are others on the board who also believe that IFF should be in the mould of a traditional nonprofit/think-tank, and thus to position this as a difference of opinion between only Mr Gupta and me is incorrect. I might point out that it was Mr Jonnalagadda who took the call to resign on these grounds, and I have followed his lead. We intend to work in a more unstructured manner, with groups of people who want to contribute some of their time to causes they believe in, in the same manner that Save The Internet was run.”

I put the same question to Gupta. He said he is not comfortable talking about it. “I do not want to comment on former colleagues beyond the public statement of the Board of IFF. It is not something I professionally believe in.”

While researching this piece, I met with Sharad Sharma, the co-founder of iSpirt Foundation in Bengaluru. We discussed several things including the instance where Sharma was found trolling Aadhaar critics on Twitter. An act for which he subsequently apologised. Sharma said that, in hindsight, he couldn’t fathom how he turned from a passionate supporter of Aadhaar to someone who had started hurting other people. It is still a difficult conversation for him. Quite a few sources I spoke with aired a similar concern about Pahwa. How, for some months now, he has been privately criticising IFF to anyone willing to listen. How, over time, he developed a saviour complex and this became a problem as he holds his views strongly and isn’t afraid to carry out a negative campaign against anyone he disagrees with.    

When I posed this question to Pahwa, he termed this factually incorrect and a ridiculous assertion. “I don’t think I must, or even, can shoulder the burden of activism for a free and fair Internet,” he said. “It is true that I have led when I have had to—despite my many pleas, in case of Net Neutrality, none of the internet nonprofits was initially willing to do something about it. I have also supported others when they needed it: in the case of SpeechBill.in, Mr Gupta took the lead, and I supported his efforts, going with him to meet various media stakeholders, and on one occasion, helping ensure that the entire campaign doesn’t get cancelled. In the case of SpeakForMe.in, I supported the work done by the group involved and did not think or act as if it is mine alone to do something about. I have voiced my opinion on other issues, whether related to the technology industry or free speech issues because I have observed that my voice does get heard: it is a privilege that I have, I try and help where I can.

“On the baseless allegation about there being a negative campaign around anyone who does not agree with my views’, I have mostly focused on issues and organisations in positions of responsibility. I may have made personal remarks at times, but there has been no ‘campaign’ against any individual whatsoever. My focus is on issues, and not people.”

“Hey, I got the job”

On 29 August, the six met. At WeWork, Embassy Golf Links.

After some banter at the fancy WeWork premises, they got down to business. The day was structured in parts. What IFF must do next. How can disagreements be bridged. How to think about organisational structure, volunteer network and staffing needs. Take stock of documentation, profit & loss and balance sheet. And finally, board resolutions and discussions.

The group, though, spent a disproportionate amount of time discussing the idea of IFF as an organisation as opposed to a loose set of volunteers.   

“The idea of volunteers is that it can lead to quick online mobilisation,” said Gupta. “People may come in, a specific issue may be closer to their heart, and they may then drop out. We need long-term members and continuous exchange of feedback, to provide any meaningful value that helps maintain motivation. In Save The Internet and some other contemporary online campaigns, we noticed only 100-200 active members, which, by itself, reduces the spread as they become distribution nodes for a campaign. Over time, the strength and size of this number drop, but the work remains. For delivering continuous impact, we need to build a core group of at least 20,000-30,000 engaged volunteers and staff…”

The others joined in.

“There is a serious problem with the representation of women,” said Taneja. “A lot of times, if you look at this community, it is predominantly heterosexual, urban males. This has a serious impact on the number of external people that this community reaches out to. If you don’t have diversity, you can never have a viewpoint which enriches the debate.”

Everyone nodded in agreement.

“I think it needs a full-time staff to drive this,” said Cheema. “And this is true for nonprofits across the world where volunteering and a community co-exist…”

At around 13:30, the group stepped out for lunch. At the food court, right next to WeWork. After lunch, Taneja left and the group hung out for a little longer, chatting about everything that had come to pass. For a few hours, it seemed like they were together again. Friends. The past is the past. Let’s stay in touch. At around 5 PM, the group said their goodbyes and Gupta left for the airport. Having reached the airport in time despite Bengaluru’s notoriously bad traffic, he called his girlfriend.

“Hey, I got the job.”

“Good,” she said.

P.S.

Rohin Dharmakumar: “I did not attend the board meeting because I have not been an active participant of IFF, and, as such, would not like to take credit for the work they have done.”

Nikhil Pahwa: “As far as I’m concerned, post-resignation, I am no longer a part of the board, and thus, I see no reason to be involved in taking decisions on the future of the organisation…Given that my travel plans to Bangalore were not fitting in with other out-of-state attendees, I chose not to change my travel plans. I did offer to meet members of the board post the meeting since I’m friends/friendly with many of my former colleagues.”

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