Going through a turbulent time of lockdowns and fear, robust telecom networks proved to be the savior of people with their high-speed internet connectivity and kept people connected across the world.
With billions of people locked down at home and work from home became the new reality, it was the presence and availability of the internet that kept the wheels of business, commerce and trade moving till now. Internet emerged as the latest tool for freedom of expression and speech in many parts of the world. This happened due to the rising social media usage, greater access in rural areas and surge in data consumption at a global level.
The sudden rise in the number of digital users can also be attributed to the telecom network’s efficiency in providing robust connections and the launch of 5G services in a few countries.
According to the latest report, India witnessed a 12 percent rise in digital users with many facilities and promotions now being available digitally like payment services, e-commerce, etc. But this sudden rise also gave birth to various issues related to internet security and privacy that led to several fraud schemes and cybercrimes that were going unnoticed till now.
This led to stricter laws being introduced by the Indian government on the Internet that stirred a great deal of controversy across the nation regarding Internet freedom in India.
But, are the new laws the only thing that is restricting Internet freedom in India, or somewhere in the past, we ignored this slow repression of Internet freedom in India?
Let’s transcend a few years back to get a clearer picture of Internet freedom in India and how the new laws are only the final manifestation of various activities done to get the final result.
Retreating a few years back, India observed a new overhaul of various Government initiatives promoting Internet usage under the name of “Digital India” and smart cities development.
Despite these measures, according to an analytics report, Internet freedom in India declined in 2016 from the previous year, as the number of Internet shutdowns were either done by States or by Center and digital message-related arrests rose.
Around 23 separate incidents of Internet shutdowns were witnessed across eight different states in 2016 as compared to its previous years that led us to question Internet freedom in India.
The report also emphasized the repeated incidents of arrests done of at least 17 people for controversial content circulated on WhatsApp. These include group administrators that were not legally responsible for the content.
The report also found a rise in the number of requests done by the Indian government to take down content on different platforms, which was triple the amount done in its last year. This also led to Facebook taking down over 30,000 pieces of content based on these requests. Similarly, Twitter received around 40 requests for content removal in 2015, up from 15 in the same period as compared to its previous year.
This was just the tip of the iceberg as India witnessed the most cases of internet shutdowns in 2019 and 2020, even after excluding those in Jammu & Kashmir. That raised many questions on Internet freedom in India.
And the latest ban in this tirade is the Chinese apps ban in India, which happened last year, of various famous apps like Tik Tok and Cam Scanner that stirred a new controversy on Internet freedom in India.
Are new Internet laws curbing India’s Internet Freedom?
With the latest inclusion of Internet laws, the Indian government is increasingly going after messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram to comply with these new laws to ensure the cybersecurity of people’s privacy in India.
The new rules, brought in this year, give the Indian government a new batch of the arsenal of muscular new powers that will force tech companies and news outlets working in India to comply with government surveillance and censorship demands.
Resistance towards complying with these rules would cause a risk of losing access to India, their biggest market in the world, which is seen as a key to future growth.
Due to this, many court cases are going against the government with many companies opposing these new laws that makes us question the credibility of Internet freedom in India.
Though the people of India accept the fact about cybersecurity being a major concern of growing India’s digital base when the Government of India issues blocking orders, they assert secrecy and confidentiality in those orders. That leads to various wrong misconceptions and assumptions of Internet freedom in India.
Straightening it out, the government should immediately stop asserting the fact of secrecy in these cases, so that the public indeed knows what is being blocked and for what reason.
Moreover, what the government needs to realize is that at a time of promoting Digital India, Smart Cities and KYC for banks, such bans turn counter-productive. Also, such bans do not reduce violation or the spread of misinformation at a greater level. The most important requirement, in this case, is employing effective governance at the ground level rather than repeated bans on internet connectivity and Internet freedom in India.