The government’s approach towards universal Internet access is marred by dichotomy. While the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, calls Internet one of the most effective means of communication and urges authorities to post more information online, some newly issued guidelines appear to be an attempt to gag freedom of online expression.
The RTI Act states: “Every public authority should provide as much information suo motu (on its own) to the public through various means of communication so that the public have minimum need to use the Act to obtain information. Internet being one of the most effective means of communication, the information may be posted on the website.”
But the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011, notified under the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, requires the hosts or owners of websites to take immediate action on “objectionable content” on their portals. The definition of what is objectionable is so ambiguous that it can include anything—effectively allowing the government to control online content and businesses. This is surprising in a country such as India, the world’s largest democracy, where people exercise freedom of speech and expression.
The Indian civil society’s struggle for access to information is not new. Initiatives such as the National Campaign on People’s Right to Information and Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan movement in the early 1990s demanded openness about land records. More recently, the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare has advocated information disclosure from the government.
India has nearly 100 million people using the Internet. If access to information is the first step towards empowerment, then it is important to make Internet accessibility a human right because a lot of useful information, particularly relating to government schemes, is either unpublished or inaccessible by other means for most citizens. Information flow and decentralization is directly proportional to wider and inclusive development, which can further provide a cushion to absorb political, social and economic unrest. This is only possible when information access to public welfare data and content becomes a fundamental right. The RTI has supporting clauses that almost make it mandatory to provide Internet access to everyone.
Besides policy issues, poor infrastructure is the biggest bottleneck. The government must take proactive action to improve Internet access, particularly in rural areas, with the help of civil society groups, spread awareness about RTI Act, and harness the power of mobile Internet to ensure that Internet access is not just a basic right, but also an effective tool of national development.
Osama Manzar is director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and curator, mBillionth Award. He is also a member of a working group for Internet governance at the ministry of information technology.