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The Web in India is only partially free. What’s worse, it is a lot less free than a year ago. In its annual survey of freedom of the Net in various countries, Freedom House calls India’s fall from No. 39 in 2012 to No. 47 this year, the most significant annual decline. While the world in general has been busy institutionalizing Internet controls, India’s state agencies have ensured it ranks well below countries such as Kenya, Ukraine, Armenia, Tunisia, Malawi and even Libya. Targeting the medium as much as the message, the Indian government is building a bizarre and often scary web of controls. From the deliberate interruptions of mobile and Internet services to limit unrest during rioting in the Northeast to picking up individuals—a professor in West Bengal, a cartoonist in Mumbai—the state’s iron fist is everywhere.

Nor is this a matter of concern to netizens alone. The Internet is no longer some shadowy half life where nerds assemble to swap tech tales. It is the very core of modern life and any blow to its free functioning is a blow to individual freedom. Freedom House’s report on Internet freedom concerns us, therefore, as much as a report on freedom per se would.

Look at it another way. The tactics that both authoritarian and democratic governments are deploying to curtail freedom on the Net are familiar to freedom trackers over the centuries. These include “newer laws, regulations and directives to restrict online speech, a dramatic increase in arrests of individuals for something they posted online, legal cases and intimidation against social media users; and a rise in surveillance", cites the Freedom House report.

It is no coincidence that the countries pushing hardest at the United Nations for new international conventions, treaties or codes on the Internet are the likes of China and Russia. Their immediate objective is stricter government control, but the larger goal remains to perpetuate despotic regimes.

Paradoxically, the Web itself is giving governments the tools to effect the kind of sweeping surveillance that was simply impossible in an earlier, non-connected age. The omnipresent Web crawlers can flush out every obscure, barely-followed blog in the remotest corner of the country. And the personal isn’t safe either from the prying eyes of the state as a couple of young girls in Mumbai found out when they were hauled into court for a harmless post against a politician.

What’s more, controls are getting increasingly manipulative and insidious. Last year testing by OpenNet Initiative (ONI) revealed that Indian Internet service providers selectively filter sites identified by government authorities and when users attempt to access these blocked Web sites, the message they get is “server not found" rather than a straightforward site blocked. This clever little subtlety—the same message also appears when there is a genuine server error—confuses visitors into believing the inaccessibility is a result of routine network errors, rather than filtering prompted by government authorities. Technical analysis by ONI also showed that these errors were the result of domain name system (DNS) tampering, a method of filtering that enables Internet service providers (ISPs) to target specific content without blocking the host domain.

India’s Internet penetration is still a lowly 13%. With the rate climbing steadily, there will likely be many more instances of what the government may consider objectionable. The basic problem is that the whole division of society into a small number of speakers and a huge mass of listeners is over and done with. But, governments and companies are sticking to the idea that they can somehow force the same degree of control. What is worrying is that a lot of the censorship is being done by social or political groups and even corporate bodies. The curtailment of Internet freedom by the government isn’t anything new. That it will happen is a given. It’s a straight descendant of the church trying to control printing and people will find a way around it.

The bigger issue is what happens when you speak out about a popular leader or a religious icon or an institution. Or when in advance of a film release from a big distribution company which is also into telecom services, there is wholesale blocking of video sites for its telecom services’ customers.

The decline in India’s ranking while, a worrying trend, isn’t a surprise. In a sense, it is a positive because it reflects the growing importance of the Net and the voice that people are finding on it. It’s a bit like the khap panchayats in that sense—the airing of the conflict is actually a sign of positive change.

What explains India’s Internet authoritarianism? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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