Innovation, free expression key for digital framework
Today the internet is synonymous with human freedom. It enables a broad range of facilities that has improved the lives of millions of Indians. Beyond the rhetorical value of August 15 being our Independence Day, it marks the date on which Videsh Sanchar Nagar Limited (VSNL), launched internet services for private, individual use, in 1995, 25 years ago. .A quarter of a century is a useful benchmark to examine its growth, present challenges and a tenuous future.
A structural premise to examine is the existence of the “digital divide”. This hackneyed phrase cocoons the lived reality of discriminatory internet access. It exists despite consistent effort by policy makers, governments and civil society. Data published by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India for 2019 shows that there is more than one connection for every two indians. This same data reveals a concentration in metropolitan areas, for instance Delhi, which has more internet connections than people. Even within these islands of connectivity, research points to a deprivation on the lines of caste, gender and income. The concern on access is further compounded in hamlets across our vast country. According to a reply in Parliament in February, around 27,721 villages lack the underlying network infrastructure for basic tele-connectivity. The gains are impressive, but inequity prevails.
We cannot consider internet access without accounting for its muscular deprivation through internet shutdowns. By several estimates India leads the world in this harmful practice that undermines fundamental rights and economic growth. As noticed by the Supreme Court in its decision in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, the existing regulation authorising internet shutdowns lacks elementary safeguards of a periodic review.
Generally, the issue of internet access is a threshold issue, which is vital to a core development framework that will be addressed given its cross- partisan appeal. It is the initial layer of human freedom, but as much as it is achieved, social justice and liberty must match this rollout. Here, issues become contentious, as they consider competing visions of the internet -- even a digital India. While there are several areas to consider, three are significant. These are free expression, privacy and innovation which branch into several associated liberties and threats. With increase in internet access, the nature of censorship has become complex. It relies on antiquated models of criminalisation and bans that are mixed with online abuse, organised disinformation and a deluge of information on social media. Today, voter manipulation, non-consensual sexual abuse imagery, and user additiction are germane issues which provide a choice between a rights-based framework or growth of authoritarianism to public officials and policy makers.
These trends, incorrectly posed as trade-offs are similarly evident in the domain of individual privacy. This denominative value of privacy for the ordinary Indian is the facility of independent choice. This is being gradually eroded under the guise of ease and convenience. Personal data is being amassed and surveillance systems are being deployed as the internet transforms from a communication technology to being integrated with physical facilities and access controls. Here, data, rather than citizenship will determine fundamental rights and this requires a spirited defence of fundamental rights.
Finally, the mantra of innovation continues to hold promise for entrepreneurs when it permits value for users through the creation of new products and services. Here, there is reason to be guarded against the doctrine of hyperscale and monopolies -- by Silicon Valley platforms, influential technologists, telecom companies and even by the government. After all, we should heed the lessons of liberalisation that was premised in ensuring a market environment based on competition.
It would be amiss to note these challenges without considering the impact of the ongoing pandemic. The internet has been vital in overcoming its challenge, for instance in ensuring remote healthcare for millions. Here, rather than a tryst with destiny, we would be well served to look back at a difficult time in our national history. When we faced external aggression, economic distress and continuing religious tensions. Reflecting on these challenges, Prime Minister Nehru on August 15, 1963 stated, “Free India is still a child, for what are sixteen years in the life of a country?”. In a similar sentiment, even if we do not consider the internet a child, for this transformational technology a quarter of a century only marks an early teenage. We must be hopeful, but honest to our constitutional vision as we look towards a digital India.
(Apar Gupta, is an advocate and the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation)