Centre for Internet & Society

Big stride ascribed to removal of restrictions imposed in 2013; globally, Internet freedom sees decline.

The article by Moulishree Srivastava was published in Livemint on December 5, 2014. Sunil Abraham gave his inputs.

India fared better this year when it came to freedom of the Net, while globally Internet freedom declined for the fourth consecutive year in 2014 with a growing number of countries introducing more aggressive online censorship and monitoring practices, said a report by Freedom House, an independent watchdog.

The global Freedom on the Net report 2014, which covered the period between 1 May 2013 and 31 May 2014 and was released on Thursday, said India scored 42 points this year, an improvement of five points over the previous reporting period.

It’s the largest increase in Internet freedom over the past year and was ascribed to the removal of temporary restrictions on access and content that had been imposed in 2013 to stem an exodus of people from north-eastern states from wherever else they were in India.

Of the 65 countries assessed, 36 saw a decline in Internet freedom. The most significant declines were in Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. Iran, Syria and China are the world’s worst abusers of Internet freedom, said Freedom House.

A low score indicates higher Internet freedom.

The US remained relatively free compared with the rest of the world with a total score of 19, the report said.

“Any report on Internet freedom that ranks US as free cannot be taken seriously,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bengaluru-based research organization Centre for Internet and Society.

There is massive intellectual property rights (IPR)-related censorship in the US, which Freedom House does not consider censorship, and the total surveillance regime of the National Security Agency that resulted in self-censorship was also ignored by Freedom House, he said.

In India, curbs on content and arrests related to online publishing under Section 66A of the information technology (IT) Act declined in the past year.

There have been nine criminal complaints filed against social media posts in the period, but the Supreme Court did its bit by curtailing arrests for online expression under the IT Act.

Independently, the Supreme Court is assessing the constitutionality of provisions in the IT Act and secondary legislation that restrict content and criminalize speech online. Section 66A of the IT Act criminalizes a wide range of speech and led to several arrests for social media posts in 2012 and early 2013. On 2 December, the Supreme Court asked the government to clarify its stand on the constitutionality of these provisions by 9 December.

Several petitioners have also challenged parts of the IT Act, including rules introducing potential criminal liability for intermediary companies for content posted by third parties, as unconstitutional in the Supreme Court.

“Legislation and procedures to effectively protect privacy, meanwhile, remain lacking, and the scope of a privacy law currently being drafted is unclear,” said the Freedom House report.

India was expected to get a privacy law before the launch of the Unique ID, or Aadhar, programme, but this has not happened.

“Allegations of procedural abuses by state officials in surveillance cases have emerged in the states of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, in the latter while the present Prime Minister was chief minister,” the report said. “Partly in response to these scandals, the government tightened procedures in January 2014, saying officials must issue interception orders to telecommunications providers in written form, though they still require no warrant or judicial oversight.”

Currently, the government can retrieve data from intermediaries such as Internet service providers, which are required to install infrastructure for surveillance and keyword scanning of all traffic passing through each gateway.

What can curb Net freedom substantially in India, according to the report, is the Indian government’s ambitious nationwide surveillance programme, the Central Monitoring System, which allows authorities to monitor individuals’ digital communications directly without issuing orders to service providers, written or otherwise—that is, “without judicial oversight”.

The move allows government agencies to intercept any online activities, phone calls, text messages and even social media conversations in real time by directly accessing interception equipment on intermediary premises.

The Indian government also requested user information from international Web-based platforms including Google Inc., which received 2,794 data requests from Indian government agencies from January to June 2014. Facebook Inc. got 3,598 such requests and Twitter Inc. 19.

Apoorva contributed to this story.