India Only 'Partly Free' When it Comes to Internet Freedom

New Delhi: Internet freedom in India has improved for the second year running, according to the latest global report on the Internet from Freedom House, a US nonprofit organisation that monitors freedom worldwide. The India section of the 2014-15 edition of Freedom on the Net – prepared by the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi – includes a balance sheet of all major developments in the internet space, including issues of access, governance, and privacy.

India managed to maintain its position behind the United States and China as the world’s third largest internet consumer base with 302 million of the country’s 1.29 billion people having internet subscription with internet penetration having increased from 20% in June, 2014 to 24% in March, 2015 which has still been deemed below requisite standards by the report. Of the 302 million, nearly 283 million people access the internet through their mobile devices. Despite this growth India has one of the world lowest adoption rates of high speed broadband (faster than 10 Mbps), at less than 2%. Moreover, the qualification requirement for broadband in India – 512 Kbps – is well below the global average of 5 Mbps.

Although, the Global Technology Information Report 2015 ranked India 1st out of 143 countries in terms of internet affordability, the inadequacy of Indian infrastructure impedes accessibility. The Global Competitiveness Index 2014-15 ranked India 87th out of 147 countries in terms of infrastructure, a fall of two places from the previous year’s report which ranked 148 countries. The same report ranks the country 115th in terms of technological readiness to fully incorporate ICTs into daily activities. Another complexity the report addressed was the discrepancy in language, in so far as more than half the content on the internet is in English while only 12% of Indians speak the language.

Plus side

Among the government initiatives highlighted in the report are plans to ensure that the top 25 cities in terms of population have designated free public Wi-Fi zones, including the establishment of these Wi-Fi zones in places like Delhi, Bangalore, Patna and Ahmedabad.

The report further discusses the much promoted and discussed Digital India Campaign which is being coordinated by the Department of Telecom (DoT) and the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) and its plans to “use satellites, balloons, or drones to push faster digital connections to remote parts of the country by March 2017.” It also addresses, the license framework for telecom companies guidelines for which, were published in November, 2014 reducing the legal and regulatory obstacles and associated complexities for companies by requiring them to just obtain one license for both mobile phone and ISP services, instead of needing separate licenses for each sector.

Facebook’s controversial initiative in partnership with Reliance Communications, which brings with its ‘Free Basics’ service the promise of enhanced access but only to certain portions of the internet was discussed and the subsequent debate on issues of Net Neutrality were also assessed by the authors of the report.

A step forward

Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net, was particularly enthusiastic about the recent March, 2015 Shreya Singhal v Union of India Supreme Court judgment, claiming, “The Supreme Court’s ruling on the IT Act was a long awaited victory for free speech activists in India.” In the decision, the apex court invalidated Section 66A of the IT Act, as amended in 2008. This particular provision had led to several instances of arrests of people for generating socio-political content on social media between 2012 and 2015.

The court further refined the intermediary liability regimes for service providers on the Internet. Although, Section 69A of the aforementioned statute allows the government to block certain content, the court’s interpretation of the provision increases the transparency of the process.

“The Shreya Singhal judgment was a big step for internet freedom in India but it came from the judiciary. We hope that the information consolidated in this report is used by the government to develop better internet policy for Indian citizens”, said Chinmayi Arun, research director of the Centre for Communication Governance at NLU Delhi.

Freedoms compromised

Nevertheless, network shutdowns under grounds of national security, and due to a prevailing lack of transparency pertaining to issues of blocking and surveillance, India’s internet freedom has been limited and as a result, the country has received a rating of “partly free”.

Madeline Earp, Freedom on the Net Asia research analyst remarked, “In 2015, India’s internet users spoke out to defend net neutrality in record numbers, demonstrating a real commitment to equal, open access to online content. Shutdowns and murky information about the authorities’ blocking and surveillance practices violate the same fundamental internet freedom principles.”

The report details the blocking practices in the country which are regulated by Section 69A and its concomitant “Blocking Rules”. It talks about how over-broad applications of these rules have often led to blocking of content which could otherwise be deemed legitimate. The Shreya Singhal case held that the sections and rules are constitutional but through its interpretation afforded safeguards and redressal mechanism so that there are enough opportunities for legitimate content to stay up online.

The report states that the government does routinely block connectivity but in situations of unrest such as in September, 2014 when two persons were stabbed in Vadodara due to communal clashes stemming from images circulating on Facebook, the city police authorised the blocking of 2G, 3G, SMS and MMS services for three days.

The controversies surrounding the AIB Roast and its aftermath, and the DoT order to ban 857 pornographic websites and the government’s subsequent change of stance due to widespread protests on social media have also been discussed. The report suggests there was a general increase in the number of requests made by the government from January – June, 2014, to social media platforms for the removal of content.

With respect to content manipulation the report suggests that in the assessment time period there have been instances of articles being removed by news agencies due to ensuing discussions that permeate social media, citing an article by journalist Rana Ayuub criticising BJP leader Amit Shah in July, 2014. It also discusses issues of paid news and other associated forms of articles, as service providers looked to curb content that did not favour them “economically”.

Moreover, the report has in great detail discussed instances of digital activism that have taken places in the past year, such as “Save the Internet”, to preserve Net Neutrality and to combat such aforementioned content manipulation, The Kiss of Love Campaign to combat instances of moral policing, and the Shame the Rapist Campaign. The report uses these examples to highlight just how vital it is to maintain the right to free speech and the right of users to seek receive and impart information, and its benefits for enhanced political discourse.

The report further sought to elucidate upon inadequate mechanisms available to protect an individual’s right to privacy. Although, there is a privacy bill in the midst of drafting, there are reports indicating that law enforcement agencies are wishing to seek exemption from the regulatory framework, thus bringing the legitimacy of such a law into doubt.

There were no reports of unlawful surveillance but the report speculates that this may be due to the murkiness that shrouds the country’s framework that governs surveillance. Moreover, it expressed concern of information stemming from news reports of the development of a Central Monitoring System by the government to keep track of people’s digital communications. The report also expresses concerns about the launching of NETRA by the DRDO and its potential mass surveillance application and its potential risks of individual’s right to privacy. It was stated that between July-December, 2014 the Indian government made the second highest number of requests in the world for access to user to data to internet based platforms.