G7: Language Diluted, India Signs Statement Condemning Internet Shutdowns

The open societies statement signed by India criticised only 'politically motivated internet shutdowns', unlike an earlier statement issued by the G7 foreign ministers which unequivocally condemned online curbs.

New Delhi: India signed off on the ‘open societies’ joint statement by the G7 and guest countries, which encourages values such as “freedom of expression, both online and offline, as a freedom that safeguards democracy and helps people live free from fear and oppression”, but the language was revised to accommodate New Delhi’s concerns about a blanket criticism of Internet shutdowns.

An earlier statement issued by the G7 foreign ministers in May – in the section titled ‘Open Societies, unequivocally condemned Internet shutdowns, which they said is a violation of freedom of expression. In the statement that India signed, concern is expressed only against “politically motivated internet shutdowns”.

As The Wire had reported on Saturday, India pushed to dilute the language related to Internet shutdowns, saying shutdowns are sometimes necessary for maintaining ‘law and order’ and combatting communal violence. The UK had moved to agree to a compromise on the language in the summit document, to refer to only shutdowns that are “politically motivated”.

The ‘Open Societies Statement’ was adopted at the end of an outreach session titled ‘Building Back Together—Open Societies and Economies’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the lead speaker for this session.

Participating via a video conference, Modi said that “democracy and freedom were a part of India’s civilisational ethos”. However, he “shared the concern” expressed by several leaders that “open societies are particularly vulnerable to disinformation and cyber-attacks”. Modi said there is a need to ensure that cyberspace remains “an avenue for advancing democratic values and not of subverting it”.

Apart from the G7 countries, India, South Korea, Australia and South Africa were invited as guest countries. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called them “Democracies 11”, in yet another sign that the summit was held under the impression that the world is heading towards a showdown between democracies and autocracies.

Though the ‘Open Societies’ statement is directed at China and Russia, activists and rights organisations have also noted India’s track record on Internet shutdowns, especially in Jammu and Kashmir. Digital rights group Access Now said that India imposed the highest number of internet shutdowns in 2020, accounting for 109 out of 155 suspensions globally. As The Wire has noted, India topped the charts on internet shutdowns for the third consecutive year.

Official sources in India argued that the country has used internet shutdowns for years, for instance when there were security concerns like attacks on students from the northeast and terrorist attacks.

Earlier this year, the US had criticised the imposition of an Internet ban near areas where farmers were agitating against farm laws. India responded that “the temporary measures with regard to internet access in certain parts of the NCR region were understandably undertaken to prevent further violence”. India had, of course, compared the incident where a flag was hoisted on the Red Fort to the storming of Capitol Hill by supporters of former US President Donald Trump.

The joint statement at G7 said: “We are at a critical juncture, facing threats to freedom and democracy from rising authoritarianism, electoral interference, corruption, economic coercion, manipulation of information, including disinformation, online harms and cyber attacks, politically motivated internet shutdowns, human rights violations and abuses, terrorism and violent extremism.”

The “open societies” statement also affirmed “human rights for all, both online and offline, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights instruments, and opposition to any form of discrimination, so that everyone can participate fully and equally in society”.

According to the Ministry of External Affairs, Prime Minister Modi said during the session on ‘Open Societies and Open Economies’ that as the world’s largest democracy, India is a natural ally for the G7 and guest countries to “defend these shared values from a host of threats stemming from authoritarianism, terrorism and violent extremism, disinformation and infodemics and economic coercion”. He also underscored the “vulnerabilities” inherent in open societies and called on tech companies and social media platforms to “ensure a safe cyber environment for their users.

Another G7 statement – which was not signed by India or the other gues countries – criticised China for violating “human rights and fundamental freedoms” in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and also its “unilateral attempts” to change the status quo in the South China Sea. The statement also called for a transparent and timely study by the World Health Organisation into the origins of the novel coronavirus in China.

China on Monday denounced the joint statement, describing it as a “gross interference” in the country’s internal affairs and urged the grouping to stop “slandering China”. China’s embassy in London said it was strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed to mentions of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan that distorted the facts and exposed the “sinister intentions of a few countries such as the United States”.

“China’s internal affairs must not be interfered in, China’s reputation must not be slandered, and China’s interests must not be violated,” it added.