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India has not signed the Declaration for the Future of the Internet

But there’s still time to join the global pact on democratic principles of the internet.

“[We] intend to work toward an environment that reinforces our democratic systems and promotes active participation of every citizen in democratic processes, secures and protects individuals’ privacy, maintains secure and reliable connectivity, resists efforts to splinter the global Internet, and promotes a free and competitive global economy,” sixty-one nations including the US, all EU member states, the UK, Australia, Canada, Israel, and New Zealand said on April 28 in the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, a political commitment to challenge rising digital authoritarianism.

Notably, India is not among the countries that have signed the Declaration. It’s concerning that India, as a democratic nation, isn’t participating in an initiative that is promoting an internet that protects freedom of speech and expression and fosters openness, competition, and inclusivity. The other large nations that are not part of the commitment are Russia and China, which is not great company to keep. With rising instances of internet shutdowns, content takedown notices, and even arrests for tweets critical of the government, it would have been welcome to see India reiterate its commitment to the democratic principles proposed in the Declaration. Nevertheless, there’s still a chance for India to join. “The hope remains that time isn’t fully passed yet for India to join […] we’ve been engaged in — in very intensive efforts to have all of these — all of these countries join,” a senior White House official said in a press briefing.

The Declaration has been in the works since September 2021. While the initial idea was to form some kind of “alliance,” this idea appears to have been dropped after negative feedback.  The Declaration is not legally binding, but it will have an impact on the frameworks developed and adopted by international bodies. “This Declaration takes into account, and expects to contribute to, existing processes in the UN system, G7, G20, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Trade Organization, and other relevant multilateral and multistakeholder fora, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, Internet Governance Forum, and Freedom Online Coalition,” the Declaration states.

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Challenges to the open internet

“Globally, we are witnessing a trend of rising digital authoritarianism where some states act to repress freedom of expression, censor independent news sites, interfere with elections, promote disinformation, and deny their citizens other human rights. At the same time, millions of people still face barriers to access and cybersecurity risks and threats undermine the trust and reliability of networks,” the US government said in a statement.

“The last two months have provided an extreme example of such behavior in connection with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia has aggressively promoted disinformation at home and abroad, censored Internet news sources, blocked or shut down legitimate sites, and gone so far as to physically attack the Internet infrastructure in Ukraine. Russia, however, is hardly alone but just one of the leaders in a dangerous new model of Internet policy along with the People’s Republic of China and some of the other most censorial states in the world,” a senior White House official said.

The Declaration explains that the internet, developed as an open “network of networks”, has been governed by a multi-stakeholder approach to avoid internet fragmentation. “For business, entrepreneurs, and the innovation ecosystem as a whole, interconnection promises better access to customers and fairer competition; for artists and creators, new audiences; for everyone, unfettered access to knowledge. With the creation of the Internet came a swell in innovation, vibrant communication, increased cross-border data flows, and market growth—as well as the invention of new digital products and services that now permeate every aspect of our daily lives,” the Declaration states.

However, over the last two decades, the idea of an interconnected network has been challenged by the following, the Declaration lays out:

  • Authoritarian governments limiting access to the internet
  • Governments using digital tools to repress freedom of expression and deny other human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • State-sponsored or condoned malicious behaviour, such as the spread of disinformation and cybercrimes such as ransomware targeting critical infrastructure
  • Firewalls and internet shutdowns to restrict access to journalism, information, and services.
  • Privacy and security concerns arising from a highly concentrated internet economy as opposed to the decentralised internet economy that once was
  • Increase in the spread of illegal and harmful content enabled by online platforms, threatening the safety of individuals and contributing to radicalisation and violence.

What does the Declaration look to promote?

According to the vision of the Declaration, the signatories commit to promoting the following:

  • Human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • Accessibility and inclusivity: All should be able to connect to the internet, no matter where they are located, their affordability, and their digital skills
  • Competition: Businesses of all sizes should be able to innovate, compete, and thrive on their merits in a fair and competitive ecosystem
  • Privacy protection: Individuals and businesses should trust the safety and the confidentiality of the digital technologies they use and that their privacy is protected
  • Interoperability: Infrastructure should be designed to be secure, interoperable, reliable, and sustainable
  • Sustainability: Technology should be used to promote pluralism and freedom of expression, sustainability, inclusive economic growth, and the fight against global climate change.

What principles will countries adopt?

In order to achieve the vision stated above, countries commit to adopting the following key principles into concrete policies and actions:

To promote human rights and fundamental freedoms

  • Respect human rights while executing their domestic authorities by adhering to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the principles of the rule of law, legitimate purpose, non-arbitrariness, effective oversight, and transparency, both online and offline.
  • Promote online safety by continuing to strengthen the work to combat violence online, including sexual and gender-based violence as well as child sexual exploitation, to make the internet a safe and secure place for everyone, particularly women, children, and young people.
  • Promote equitable use of the internet for everyone, without discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnic, national or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of an indigenous population, property, birth, disability, age, gender identity or sexual orientation.
  • Take actions against illegal and harmful content online consistent with international human rights law, meaning action taken by governments and online platforms to reduce such content should respect the right to freedom of expression while encouraging diversity of opinion, and pluralism without fear of censorship, harassment, or intimidation.
  • Provide access to meaningful remedies for human rights violations and abuses, consistent with international human rights law.
  • Refrain from misusing or abusing the internet or algorithmic tools or techniques for unlawful surveillance, oppression, and repression that do not align with international human rights principles, including developing social scorecards or other mechanisms of domestic social control or pre-crime detention and arrest.

To promote the free flow of information and a global internet

  • Refrain from government-imposed internet shutdowns or degrading domestic internet access, either entirely or partially.
  • Refrain from blocking or degrading access to lawful content, services, and applications on the internet, consistent with principles of Net Neutrality.
  • Promote the benefits of data free flows
  • Promote cooperation in research and innovation and standard-setting,
  • Encourage information-sharing regarding security threats through relevant international fora, and reaffirm our commitment to the framework of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace.

To increase access to the internet

  • Promote affordable, inclusive, and reliable access to the internet for individuals and businesses where they need it and support efforts to close digital divides around the world
  • Support digital literacy, skills acquisition, and development so that individuals can overcome the digital divide and participate on the internet safely, and realize the economic and social potential of the digital economy.
  • Foster greater exposure to diverse cultural and multilingual content, information, and news online.

To increase trust in the digital ecosystem

  • Work together to combat cybercrime, including cyber-enabled crime, and deter malicious cyber activity.
  • Ensure that the government’s access to personal data is based on law and conducted in accordance with international human rights law.
  • Protect individuals’ privacy, their personal data, and the confidentiality of electronic communications and information on end-users’ electronic devices, consistent with the protection of public safety and applicable domestic and international law.
  • Promote the protection of consumers from online scams and other unfair practices online and from dangerous and unsafe products sold online.
  • Promote and use trustworthy network infrastructure and services suppliers, relying on risk-based assessments that include technical and non-technical factors for network security.
  • Refrain from using the internet to undermine the electoral infrastructure, elections, and political processes, including through covert information manipulation campaigns.
  • Support a rules-based global digital economy that fosters trade and contestable and fair online markets so that firms and entrepreneurs can compete on their merits.
  • Cooperate to maximise the enabling effects of technology for combatting climate change and protecting the environment whilst reducing as much as possible the environmental footprint of the internet and digital technologies.

To promote multistakeholder internet governance

  • Protect and strengthen the multistakeholder system of internet governance, including the development, deployment, and management of its main technical protocols and other related standards and protocols.
  • Refrain from undermining the technical infrastructure essential to the general availability and integrity of the internet.

“The Internet has brought humanity together, like never before in history. Today, for the first time, like-minded countries from all over the world are setting out a shared vision for the future of the Internet, to make sure that the values we hold true offline are also protected online, to make the Internet a safe place and trusted space for everyone, and to ensure that the Internet serves our individual freedom. Because the future of the Internet is also the future of democracy, of humankind.” – Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission

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