December 10 was an eventful day for the discourse on Internet freedom in the country even though most of the action happened offline.
In the morning, the Attorney General, in a stray submission to the Supreme Court on the much-talked about (and criticised) Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act, said the government doesn’t necessarily think the act is particularly sinister. “Yes, it has been misused, but the law in itself isn’t all that bad and is, in fact, necessary” seems to be the line that the government will take when it finally submits its affidavit, as directed by the Supreme Court. Although when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in the opposition, its position on the issue was exactly opposite.
Later in the evening, the “Freedom on the Net: India Report 2014” was released at the India International Centre, and the government could almost use the findings of the report to make its case. According to the report, India has fared better – even though only marginally – than the previous year. In fact, the report says India has the freest Internet in the whole of South Asia.
The three parameters used by the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi — which was commissioned by US-based non-government organisation Freedom House to bring out the India report — to grade the countries were: Obstacles to Access, Limits on Content and Violations of User Rights.
The less a country scores, the more freedom that country has because of the negative connotations the yardsticks have. Internationally, Iceland was awarded the best score, and Iran the worst. The countries were also granted a freedom status based on their combined scores: 0-30: free; 31-60: partly free; 61-100: not free. India was awarded the status of partly free based on its combined score of 42.
But not everyone is convinced by the report, particularly about India’s Internet space being freer than it was a year ago. Addressing the concern, Madeline Earp, who edited the report, argued that the improvement in India’s position was because the previous year’s assessment was affected by “a few untowardly incidents”, which didn’t happen this year.
Strangely, the report doesn’t take into account the fact that past arrests or prohibitions can impact usage pattern over the next few years, and that the lack of “incidents” could just be a result of people being careful. Also, the report relies primarily on reported incidents to draw conclusions – which inherently mean the picture, if not incorrect, has high chances of being incomplete.
Saikat Datta, Nation Security Editor, Hindustan Times, thinks the idea to compare different countries’ Internet space is fundamentally flawed. “While citizens of the United Sates of America may enjoy higher levels of Internet freedom because of certain economic reasons, much of the country’s institutionalised surveillance impacts countries outside of the American continent and its allies,” explains Datta. He believes, and perhaps rightly so, that any report about Internet freedom that doesn’t take into account the US’ snooping (about which we get to know increasingly more thanks to the likes of Edward Snowden) is problematic.
The report also doesn’t discuss “net neutrality”. Net neutrality, in its most simplified form, means treating all data as equal by internet service providers (ISP) and governments. It is that not-so-conspicuous entity that makes the space the Internet is – more equal and democratic than probably any other physical space on earth. But then, as it is with most things that bring along with them an inherent sense of equal opportunity, American corporations are uncomfortable with it.
Recently, ISPs such as Comcast started charging content providers like Netflix to provide fast lanes to get films to subscribers. It is a development that could mean the beginning of players with deep pockets enjoying greater privileges on the Internet and even completely gobbling up smaller independent voices – an eventuality so ominous that it could challenge the very foundations of the Internet.
The fact that there’s more and more discussion on the subject of Internet freedom is welcome (even more so considering the current dispensation suddenly thinks there’s nothing wrong with India’s IT laws). However, the findings of the Freedom House report, though surely well-intentioned, need to be interpreted with some caution. It paints a picture that’s slightly half-baked – and that could be dangerous in the larger scheme of things, for what is at stake extends beyond just a free online space. The freeness of the Internet, in the not-so-distant future, could just well be a litmus test of a nation’s democratic convictions.