In what has been an unprecedented year, it was robust telecom networks that provided high-speed internet connectivity and kept people connected across the world. As billions of people were locked down at home-and work from home became the norm-it was the internet that kept the wheels of business, commerce and trade moving. In many countries the internet emerged as the tool for freedom of expression and speech. This was driven by rising social media usage, greater access in rural areas and surge in per capita data consumption globally.
According to the Mary Meeker Internet Trends Report, there are 3.8 billion internet users globally, accounting for 51 per cent of the world's population. China leads with 21 per cent of the user base followed by India (12 per cent), US (8 per cent), Indonesia and Brazil.
At over 450 million internet users in India, the numbers are quite impressive. But, the pandemic has also fuelled digital repression. Access to the internet and freedom are entirely different. Freedom House- that monitors the state of freedom and democracy across the world-rates Internet Freedom in 65 countries on three parameters -Obstacles to Access, Limits on Content and Violation of User Rights. India with a score of 51, four lower than last year's 55 has been rated as partly free. India's rating fall is the sharpest after Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan which were down five points each.
India scored 12 out of 25 in Obstacles to access; 21 out of 35 in limits on content and 18 out of 40 in violations of user rights. Of the 65 countries, Freedom House rated15 as free countries; 28 including India are partly free and 22 are not free.
That's not all. In 2019/20, India had the most cases of internet shutdowns, even after excluding those in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). According to internetshutdowns.in, there have been 455 shutdowns since 2012. Of that 134 shut downs happened in 2018, followed by 106 in 2019 and 77 in 2020.
While the government shut down internet services in J&K after Article 370 was repealed, in a significant verdict in the Anuradha Bhasin Vs Union of India case, the Supreme Court ruled in January 2020 that indefinite suspension of internet services would be illegal under Indian law. It said, the right to access the internet is a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. It was over the internet and movement restrictions imposed in Jammu & Kashmir in August 2019. Yet, the government has extended the ban on 4G services in J&K to 8 January 2021.
India is no different from the rest of the world as far as checks on the internet are concerned. A close look at internet bans in India reveals that it is largely used by the government to curb protests under the garb of national security. That's quite the norm across the world. The second area of problem are the large technology giants-called the FAANG- that includes Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google that have access to data which gives them an unfair advantage over competition. The US government and 48 states and districts have sued Facebook accusing it of abusing market power in social networking to crush competition. On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, governments are aiming to curb the tax avoidance, predatory business practices and misuse of consumer data by the FAANG.
Internet bans from monitoring content to curbing voices is a dangerous trend in a democracy. What the government needs to do is ensure that internet access is not restricted even if there is opposition from a section of the people. It is important to provide a platform for voices of dissent in a democracy. Second, like in the US, the Indian government should also start a process to ensure that puts a check on excessive power of any organization over data and information using the internet.
More importantly, what the government needs to realise is that at a time when it promoting Digital India, Smart Cities and Aadhar-based know your customer (KYC) for banks, such bans turn counter-productive. Also, such curbs do not reduce violation or the spread of misinformation. What is needed is effective governance at the ground level rather than bans on internet connectivity.
The country faces the greatest loss globally due to internet shut downs. It's time to go in for focused and limited period shut downs if at all and as the world's largest democracy show that such bans don't really work. Hopefully, we can see some maturity in 2021.
Also read: Time to overhaul Article 69A