As I started writing this article, I realised my wifi was acting up. All my work is dependent on the internet and my computer! How on earth will I do any of my work today? So I checked my wi-pod, switched it off and then back on again. It started working! All was well again.

Have you thought what would happen if your phone and computer lost all the charge at the same time? I recently moved for work to a more remote place from my city of joy. I was used to the magic of uninterrupted electricity and wifi, both at work and at home. But in my first week in, one of my worst nightmares became real as heavy thunderstorms resulted in a power outage! I felt, helpless and a little lost, to be honest. After all, I never realised my dependence on electricity and internet connection before. I did not realise how technology had come to become an integral and indispensable part of my life!

With no electricity and internet comes the gift of time. You get the time to ponder upon the things which were at the back of your mind. After exhausting the usual topics like love, life and career, I moved on to thinking about greater things in the news that I have been meaning to think about!

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I thought about technology: from big, bulky wired computers, we now have ones that are in our hands and even our wrists! We can monitor things like the steps we took to the weather or the global news. We have the little devices in our palms which we can use to learn so much and improve. We can read the news, blogs, even do online courses in varied topics and much more! Sky is the limit. But we tend to limit ourselves to just the fluff!

Then I moved on to thinking about the bigger things like, What is net neutrality? What about the big AT&T In & Times Warner, Inc. acquisition deal in the USA? How do competition and market get affected by this? What about the Flipkart & Walmart deal? Is Walmart really targeting at the kirana shops? Has Facebook really reformed and stop collecting and selling our data?

Being an average netizen, my thoughts kept coming back to net neutrality and Facebook! So here is my observation from the point of view of an interested netizen, who has followed this for past couple of years.

Net neutrality is simply put – everyone having access to everything on the internet. Then what is the whole commotion about? You can all use the same search engine for the same topic and get the same results. So that means, YouTube cannot charge extra to put the content of one party over the other or promote one content more than others in theory. It is a consumer-driven market. Consumer determines the bestsellers.

Now, the telecommunications industry has been after a taste of profits derived from the use of the internet. They claim that since they are providing the infrastructure to content creators on the internet, they should get a share in the revenues earned by content creators. But most content creators are independent and start small. In the USA, the telecoms wanted to create a fast lane and slow lane. The paid collaborators’ websites would load faster than unpaid ones. The smaller content creators would not have the financial resources to compete. This would stifle the content creator. Eventually, the consumer will end up paying more! If you don’t think it is true, think about the different ‘package plans’ for your mobile usage or premium cable channels! You are already being charged differently for the content of your choosing, aren’t you?

But, why should you care about things happening in the USA after all? It does not affect you, right? That is only for now.

That’s the beauty of technology, laws and regulations. They are fascinating, for they evolve right in front of us! We didn’t care about Facebook-Cambridge Analytica controversy until we realised that our Indian politicians also used our Facebook data to do similar things. They were merely not as successful as their USA counterparts. No wonder data privacy and cyber laws are a hot topic now. This is probably the best time to get educated in cyber laws and privacy laws-only India doesn’t have any legislation for privacy laws!

Basically, there are organisations like Cambridge Analytica, which aid the politicians in a sort of public relations strategy by collecting data on public, analysing and then changing the narratives to sway the public. Public narratives are stories that help us understand our world.It is both extremely popular and effective. Public narratives changes to accommodate some assumptions and become dominant narratives, which determine how we understand important issues. It is a powerful tool of strategy. But it can used both to empower and stupefy, and our leaders use it mostly for the latter.

It is like a magic trick, you know you were just duped, but you can’t put your finger on how exactly! That’s the beauty of changing narratives, they are so enormous, yet so subtle. They are the one idea that can change the image of political leaders, their (in)actions and make us believe them! Think about digitisation, demonetisation, GST, etc.

As I said that when I have the time, I sometimes like to think about some of the real things which affect us in our day to day life. For instance, the whole digitisation movement in India, did we see changes as things happened? For Indians, the central theme here would be the digitisation campaign and its evolution. The changing narratives around the campaign to make it thrive. We need to keep an eye out on the news and the changing narratives.

So right after Facebook came to India around 2015 and our PM Modi supported it wholeheartedly with full pages of news adverts and the likes, digitisation crept in. Whether Modi government’s interests aligned with Facebook’s, or the other way around is hard to say, but the timing worked for them both. However, there was a problem. Facebook’s Free Basics Campaign. Conceptually it was almost noble; free basic internet for everyone. Then Reliance came on board and soon enough became the telecom partners of Facebook in India! This was the beginning of en masse digitisation of India.

Around the same time, I had gotten a Reliance and whenever I surfed Facebook, I used to get the Free Basics Campaign adverts! It was borderline annoying. I almost filled out the pre-filled response of Facebook which claimed to support Free Basics! I mean, I’d be a monster to not want Chanda in a remote village, counting on the free basic internet to succeed in her life, right?

But then, something on YouTube caught my attention. It was the infamous comedy sketch group: All India Bakchod (AIB). They were out with a plea to save the internet. I wondered what on earth was it about.

Turns out, TRAI had asked for the public response to few questions which essentially dealt with keeping net neutrality or forsaking it. AIB and other YouTubers (re:content creators) tried there medium-sketch comedy to educate people about net neutrality and the impact of Facebook’s Free Basics pre-filled forms.

It was a huge controversy because of the pre-filled forms! Most people did not even know about TRAI’s questionnaire which is available here

By submitting Yes in the form for Free Basics, people were sending out forms through Facebook. The pre-filled forms essentially agreed to support the Reliance-Facebook collaboration of providing basic internet, i.e., only some applications and websites will be accessible. How do they decide which are the necessary or important websites? The common business sense would dictate whichever of these websites and applications paid or collaborated with them, right? But it would be against differential pricing and net neutrality. Why not provide access to all of the internet and instead of just basics? Well, because it is bad for business!

This happened and ended three years ago. Why do we still care? The point is to see the changing narratives around the same idea. They span over months and years and are subtle. Changing narratives are literally the story around a topic or policy being changed or evolved. So the topic like, Digital India Campaign  remains the same, but the story around it changes!

Let me show how the narratives shift to support the policy.

PM Modi had supported Facebook because of his Digital India initiative. However, as soon as the shit hit the fan, his support was withdrawn and the damage was beautifully contained. There was no hue and cry about PM Modi’s and Facebook at the time. Why was that? Even the Digital India Campaign was muted and not much heard for a while. Until the demonetisation of currency notes in November 2016.

With demonetisation, people were forced to increase their digital transactions because of the shortage of the currency notes. Then the Digital India Campaign found a new collaborator-PayTM! Again came the one-page advertisements where PayTM supported PM’s initiatives and encouraged digital transactions through PayTM! The success of PayTM can be ascertained by the fact that they opened up a bank shortly thereafter! It pays to know the right people, does it not?

As for one of the old Facebook collaborator Reliance, they started giving out free Jio sim cards for three months’ free usage! This was revolutionizing for the telecom industry.It was launched in September 2016, just in time, around demonetisation (November 2016). They also went on to launch INR 1500 handsets in 2017, with pre-loaded applications and unlimited data and voice calls. The phone also had another feature: the users could link their Jan Dhan accounts (another initiative by PM Modi) and other modes of secure payments.

Do you see the subtlety? The digitisation movement gets repackaged and relaunched with PayTM. They get their due soon and start a digital bank! Reliance sim and phone launches not only crippled their competition, they also promoted another government initiative- Jan Dhan Yojna! Everyone wins! Almost everyone.

Demonetisation was a huge inconvenience for public at large and it barely did anything for corruption (except, maybe sway the UP elections in BJP’s direction). Ironically, the new motto of the Digital India initiative is: ‘Saaf Niyat, Sahi Vikas’ i.e., a clean conscience, correct development!

Facebook changed its policies following the Cambridge-Analytica congressional hearings. But as their entire business model is based on people’s data, I do not know how effective those policy changes really are. Net neutrality issues came up again in both India and USA.For the time being net neutrality is protected in India, not so much in the USA.

The problem is that our government is way more subtle and PR equipped than the USA, at present. So, we need to keep an eye out for changing narratives around the policies, I know I will. The subtlety and lifespan of changing public narratives can be hard to spot sometimes. But when the realisation finally dawns, you’ll be both awed and stupefied!

It would be a shame to be duped by the same trick over and over again, won’t it?



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