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Everything you need to know about Freedom House’s assessment of India’s internet freedom

Looking at India’s internet governance, it documents excessive govt power, online censorship, state surveillance, misinformation, more

Source: Freedom House

“Internet freedom in India marginally improved over the last year, following four years of decline, as efforts to bridge the country’s digital divides expanded access to the internet,” read the report published by Freedom House which evaluates freedom on the internet in countries across the world.

The report, dubbed ‘Freedom on the Net 2022’, found that internet shutdowns in India have reduced in their “frequency and intensity” even though the Indian government continues to impose them. It must be noted that the researchers did not include the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir in their evaluation.

The authors of the report also found that global internet freedom declined for the 12th consecutive year with the sharpest downgrades documented in Russia, Myanmar, Sudan, and Libya. Moreover, a record number of countries blocked websites with innocuous content, undermining the rights to free expression and access to information.

You can read the entire report here.

Why it matters: It is important to understand how internet freedom has been impacted in the past year given the trend across the world wherein governments seek to divide the open internet into a “patchwork of repressive enclaves”.

  • The report also found that the state continues to block online content, and Indian internet users risk arrest for posts critical of the government.
  • The report highlighted that India continues to be plagued by misinformation and disinformation online. It added that journalists, nongovernmental organisations, and members of marginalised groups remain at risk of facing hate speech and online harassment.

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What are the obstacles to access: The report found that internet penetration among India’s 1.4 billion population is relatively low but it observed that access to the internet is rising. It said that mobile data plans in India are quite cheap but it has not been able to address the digital divides across “geography, language, and gender”. It found that women only made up about a third of Indian internet users as only 33 percent of adult women have access to the internet, as opposed to 57.1 percent of men in the country.

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  • Internet shutdowns: India is a global leader in the number of internet shutdowns imposed, the report said, noting that the country saw 67 of them between January and August 2022. The authors also noted that the Jammu and Kashmir region sees repeated shutdowns on internet services. It also termed that compliance with the Supreme Court ruling in January 2021 as unclear. The ruling directed that orders for connectivity restrictions must be publicly available and should be well reasoned, proportionate, temporary, and present the least-restrictive alternative.
  • No significant barriers to entry: “While fees to enter the market have served as an economic barrier for some providers, there are no significant obstacles to entry for service providers,” the report stated.
  • Is TRAI independent: “There have been some reservations about TRAI’s independence. The central government makes appointment and salary decisions for its members,” the report explained, adding that its opinions, however, are perceived to be free of undue influence, and the regulator holds public consultations. It noted that MeitY (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology) failed to hold public consultations while enforcing the IT Rules, 2021. The trend was seen again when the new cybersecurity directions were released without public consultations.

Understanding limits on content: “Political and social information has been blocked by court or government orders in India,” the report observed, adding that these orders are not always publicly released. It said that the number of requests is increasing.

  • State interference: “Government actors order social media and other online platforms to remove content, including material protected under international human rights standards,” the report said. It said that Twitter complied with government orders issued in 2021 in June 2022 which was related to content from Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) politicians, journalists including Rana Ayuub, and activists linked to the farmers’ protests, as well as posts from Freedom House.
  • Scope of IT Rules, 2021: The report reiterated the concerns of civil society groups, industry experts, and tech companies wherein they have criticised the rules for the “increased power they provide the government and potential for adverse impact on free expression, privacy, and access to information”. “Ambiguity around the rules’ definitions and implementation, such as uncertainty as to which entities are considered digital news platforms, has further fueled concern” the report added. It also noted that the removal of content has lacked transparency and consistency on social media platforms.
  • Threat of self-censorship: “Threats of criminal charges and increased online harassment have reportedly contributed to more self-censorship among individual people and news outlets, as has the growing influence of the BJP and its recent popular electoral mandate,” the report said excoriatingly. It also said that civil society groups have expressed concern that the IT Rules, 2021 may lead to self-censorship by digital media and OTT platforms. “Content creators are reportedly wary of increased scrutiny by the government and other stakeholders, particularly in relation to more sensitive topics such as politics and religion,” the report said.
  • Continued misinformation: “Manipulated content and disinformation spread by domestic actors, including political parties and leaders, continues to permeate the online environment in India,” the report observed.

Violation of User Rights: “The judiciary is independent. Although commentators have argued that the courts show signs of politicisation, judgments continue to protect free expression and other constitutional rights,” read the report.

  • Problems with laws: The report pointed out that the following laws criminalises several kinds of speech—
    • Indian Penal Code (IPC)
    • Official Secrets Act
    • National Security Act
    • Several sections of the IT Act
  • Palpable risk to individuals: “Users and journalists risk being arrested and detained for political, social, and religious speech or other forms of online content authorities deem objectionable or derogatory, especially during major political events,” read the report. It also said that individuals were penalised for publishing or sharing content concerning politicians in India.
  • Risk to encryption and anonymity: “Some laws risk undermining end-to-end encryption and limiting anonymity online,” read the report, singling out the IT Rules, 2021 and the new cybersecurity guidelines.
  • Exposure to surveillance: “The Indian government is suspected of using sophisticated spyware technology against citizens,” read the report while referring to reports of Pegasus being used on Indians in 2019 and 2021. The authors also said that the Aadhaar database “poses concerns regarding data privacy and security”. It jotted down the criticisms faced by India’s data protection bill, 2022, for providing extensive powers and exemptions to the central government. They also said that there was a lack of transparency and oversight while dealing with COVID-19-related technology.
  • Threats from online activity: The report found that users faced trolling and violent threats for their online activity. “Journalists continued to face intimidation, coming in the form of criminal charges and lawsuits, as well as extralegal harassment,” read the report. “Abuse and trolling are worse when the victim is a woman, is an adherent of a minority religion, is from a lower caste, or otherwise identifies within a marginalised group,” the report observed.

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

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Written By

I cover several beats such as Crypto, Telecom, and OTT at MediaNama. I can be found loitering at my local theatre when I am off work consuming movies by the dozen.

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