Freedom House report studies internet freedom in India: key takeaways

“Internet freedom in India has improved marginally in the last year after four years of decline as efforts to bridge the country’s digital divide expanded internet access,” according to the report released by Freedom House, which examines Internet Freedom rated in countries around the world.

The report, titled “Freedom on the Net 2022,” found that internet shutdowns in India have decreased in “frequency and intensity,” although the Indian government continues to enforce them. It should be noted that the researchers did not include the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir in their analysis.

The report’s authors also noted that global internet freedom has declined for the 12th year in a row, with the sharpest falls documented in Russia, Myanmar, Sudan and Libya. In addition, a record number of countries blocked websites with innocuous content, undermining freedom of expression and access to information.

You can read the entire report here.

Why it matters: It’s important to understand how internet freedom has played out over the past year, given the global trend of governments attempting to carve up the open internet into a “patchwork of repressive enclaves.”

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  • The report also found that the state continues to block online content and Indian netizens 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, NGOs and members of marginalized groups remain at risk of hate speech and online harassment.

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What are the barriers to access? The report found that internet penetration is relatively low among India’s 1.4 billion people, but observed that access to the internet is increasing. It said mobile data plans are fairly cheap in India, but failed to erase the digital divide between “geography, language and gender.” It found that women accounted for only about a third of India’s 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.

  • Internet Shutdowns: India leads the world in the number of imposed internet shutdowns, the report said, noting that the country experienced 67 of them between January and August 2022. The authors also noted that internet services are repeatedly being shut down in the Jammu and Kashmir region. It also called compliance with the January 2021 Supreme Court ruling unclear. The ruling ordered that orders for restrictions on connectivity must be publicly available and should be well reasoned, proportionate and temporary and represent the least restrictive alternative.
  • No significant barriers to entry: “While entry fees have served as an economic barrier for some providers, there are no significant barriers to entry for service providers,” the report states.
  • Is TRAI independent: “There were some reservations about TRAI’s independence. The central government makes appointment and salary decisions for its members,” the report explained, adding that its opinions are, however, perceived as free from undue influence and the regulator conducts public consultations. It found that MeitY (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology) had not held public consultations in enforcing the 2021 IT regulations. The trend was observed again when the new cybersecurity guidelines were released without public consultation.

Understand content boundaries: “Political and social information has been blocked in India by court or government orders,” the report noted, adding that these orders are not always publicly announced. The number of inquiries is increasing, it said.

  • State intervention: “Government actors are ordering social media and other online platforms to remove content, including material protected under international human rights standards,” the report said. It said that in June 2022, Twitter complied with government orders issued in 2021 relating to content by Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) politicians, journalists, including Rana Ayuub, and activists related to the peasant protests, as well as posts by Freedom related house.
  • Scope of IT regulations, 2021: The report reiterated concerns from civil society groups, industry experts and tech companies, who criticized the rules for the “increased powers they bestow on government and the potential for adverse impacts on freedom of expression, privacy and access to information.” have criticized. “Obscurity surrounding the definitions and implementation of the rules, such as uncertainty about which companies qualify as digital news platforms, has further fueled concerns,” the report added. It also found that the removal of content across social media platforms lacked transparency and consistency.
  • Threat of self-censorship: “Threats of criminal charges and rising online harassment have reportedly contributed to increased self-censorship by individuals and news outlets, as has the growing influence of the BJP and its recent popular electoral mandate,” the report wracked. It also said civil society groups have raised concerns that the 2021 IT Rules could lead to self-censorship by digital media and OTT platforms. “Content creators are reportedly wary of increased scrutiny by government and other stakeholders, particularly over more sensitive issues such as politics and religion,” the report said.
  • Continued Misinformation: “Manipulated content and disinformation propagated by domestic actors, including political parties and leaders, continue to permeate the online environment in India,” the report noted.

Violation of user rights: “The judiciary is independent. Although commentators have argued that the courts are showing signs of politicization, rulings continue to protect freedom of expression and other constitutional rights,” the report said.

  • Problems with laws: The report noted that the following laws criminalize multiple types of speech:
    • Indian Penal Code (IPC)
    • Official Secrets Act
    • National Security Act
    • Several sections of the IT law
  • Noticeable risk for people: “Users and journalists risk being arrested and detained for making political, social and religious expressions or other forms of online content that authorities deem offensive or derogatory, particularly around major political events,” the report said. It also said individuals would be penalized for posting or sharing content about politicians in India.
  • Risk for encryption and anonymity: “Some laws risk undermining end-to-end encryption and limiting online anonymity,” says the report, which highlights IT Rules 2021 and new cybersecurity policies.
  • Exposure to surveillance: “The Indian government is suspected of using sophisticated spyware technology against citizens,” the report said, citing reports of Pegasus being used on Indians in 2019 and 2021. The authors also said that the Aadhaar database ” raises privacy and security concerns”. . It noted criticism of India’s Data Protection Act 2022 for giving sweeping powers and exemptions to the central government. They also said there is a lack of transparency and oversight when dealing with technologies related to COVID-19.
  • Threats from online activities: The report found that users were subject to trolling and violent threats because of their online activities. “Journalists continued to face intimidation, which took the form of criminal complaints and lawsuits, as well as extrajudicial harassment,” the report said. “Abuse and trolling are worse when the victim is a woman, of a minority religion, of a lower caste, or otherwise identified within a marginalized group,” the report noted.

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