India is rapidly digitising. There are good things and bad, speed-bumps on the way and caveats to be mindful of. The weekly column Terminal focuses on all that is connected and is not – on digital issues, policy, ideas and themes dominating the conversation in India and the world.
The RTI Online website, the portal used by ordinary citizens to file Right to Information applications related to the affairs of the Union government, has been structurally rendered useless over the last few years. It started with modifications to the website which removed the signing up process to create an account and repeated warnings that old, unused accounts would be deleted.
The recent deletion – since overturned – to remove all RTI applications prior to 2022 came as a shock to many as it was done with no notice. Many feared that this information was lost forever.
RTI Online has now restored all the deleted RTIs and the website displays the following message:
“The data prior to year 2022 was moved to an archival database for better performance and manageability. This archived data was not visible on the portal during this activity. The complete data for RTI Request and Appeal has been plugged in now and is available.”
There could have been multiple reasons – technical and administrative – for why the information was ‘temporarily’ removed. Often, maintenance activity of digital services can make them temporarily unavailable. While this is an accepted practice within software development cycles, such activities usually come with intimation or prior notice – which the Union government did not do.
Changes made to the RTI Online website have always been sudden and with no explanation offered. For example, let us consider the removal of the signing-up form to create new user accounts. This small change effectively disallowed people from creating a new account and made tracking RTI applications a lot more complicated.
A Right to Information request by the Internet Freedom Foundation filed in 2021 asked about the discontinuation of the signing-up form. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) did not give any actual explanation in response.
In response to our RTI on the disallowance of new users to register and the UI change, @NICMeity has said they do not have any material information on changes made to the RTI portal.
Join us on our forum and advance the conversation!https://t.co/0vMcEwr0GE
— Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) (@internetfreedom) December 24, 2021
As part of software development cycles, institutions and projects maintain a log of changes that were made to the software release management called “changelog”. The changelog is the place where software engineers keep track of all changes being made to the software and why that change has been made. The practice may vary from one institution to the next as per their requirements, but the goal remains the same: retaining institutional memory about the software. Clearly, neither the DoPT nor the National Informatics Centre (NIC) maintain these records.
Apart from these structural changes to how the website functions, other errors – with payment processing and the general unresponsiveness of the portal – also made it practically unusable. While these issues are not new, DoPT and NIC have never acknowledged their responsibility to fix them, which was always a source of concern.
The biggest failure of ‘Digital India’ has been the lack of accountability when software fails. Every software engineer understands that systems sometimes fail and that they need to design mechanisms to tackle such scenarios. From internal errors to third-party software – like payment processors or OTP gateways going through maintenance, there are several factors to be taken into account.
Most private software organisations and institutions follow software development practices that help ensure the quality of software doesn’t lead to system failures. However, a lack of accountability within all government institutions – that stems right from the top – means that even if there are solutions to these problems, they are not implemented.
In this context of lack of software accountability, the future of RTI Online – and RTI at large – is also at stake. Often, people propose privatisation of government services to address the inefficiencies in the system. Such a model may not address the issues of lack of accountability because the private sector’s priority is to make profits.
Those who use RTI must be prepared for RTI Online to be completely shut down. The preparation can begin with archiving all the existing information on an alternative storage system that is not dependent on the Government of India.
The RTI community also has to ensure that rights in cyberspace are advanced by demanding electronic information and software code. Digitisation has made government systems invisible and the RTI community has to push for transparency in this domain too, as it battles to preserve this right.
Srinivas Kodali is a researcher on digitisation and a hacktivist.