India Digital Freedoms Series

Published: October 2020

Amidst trends towards authoritarianism and closing civic space, India’s changing landscape calls for attention. In the last year alone, upheaval around farmers’ and Citizenship Amendment Act protests, sectarian violence, COVID-19, issues of statelessness and discrimination, and increasingly restrictive foreign funding rules have greatly impacted the sector and raised serious questions about the state of civic freedoms in India.

Technology has played a major role in these developments, as expression and democratic debate have increasingly moved into the digital space, particularly during the pandemic. As a result, issues around privacy, data, and surveillance are now taking center stage. Examples of how digital rights are restricted abound, from long-term internet shutdowns and possible government-sanctioned surveillance on defenders and journalists to various forms of censorship and denial of access to information.

Report Overview

This report series, researched and written by the Centre for Internet and Society with support from ICNL, examines four key topics related to digital rights and civic space in India: access issues, regulation around censorship and free expression, platform governance, and surveillance and data protection. The series explores each of these topics in-depth, as well as the relevant domestic and international law framework governing these areas in India.

1. Internet Access and Shutdowns

India has the notorious distinction of having the longest-running internet shutdown of any democracy. The report highlights the frequency and breadth of internet shutdowns in India, using testimonials and data gathered from fieldwork and research. The damaging effects on civil society of large-scale, indiscriminate shutdowns, such as those in Jammu and Kashmir, are examined in detail, followed by an overview of domestic laws governing shutdowns and international best practices to protect internet access.

2. Online Censorship

Censorship in India is widespread, with criminal defamation, hate speech, and sedition laws regularly used to target government critics, human rights defenders, journalists, and members of minority or marginalized communities. The report explores these practices, as well as problematic policies around disinformation and censorship (including policies related to COVID-19). It provides an overview of Indian constitutional rights and laws governing expression, compares these with international free expression standards, and provides recommendations for reform.

3. Platform Governance

Platforms and intermediaries are digital gatekeepers, and they play an outsized role in the Indian digital space, affecting civic participation for millions. This section explores content takedown and censorship by both governments and technology gatekeepers, as well as provides an introduction to issues of intermediary liability. It explores relevant provisions of the Information Technology Rules and provides comparative insight and recommendations around the legal framework to govern social media companies and other platforms/intermediaries.

4. Surveillance

Issues of surveillance and data protection are increasingly relevant in the Indian context. The report examines the facial recognition software and spyware in widespread use across the country, the collection of personal data, and the lack of any effective data protection mechanisms. It also looks at the proliferation of invasive contact tracing apps to track COVID-19 and the implications of new surveillance tools for civil society. Relevant criminal and IT laws are assessed, and recommendations provided based on international privacy standards.

Series Structure and Goals

Each report begins with a factual overview identifying the scope of the issue, before proceeding to evaluate relevant domestic laws, particularly those impacting the rights to free association, assembly, expression, privacy, access to information, and public participation. They then summarize relevant international law and standards, many of which are obligatory and constitute binding commitments. The reports conclude with some reflections and recommendations.

Ultimately, this series emphasizes the importance of a free, fair, and democratic digital civic space in line with international law and best practices. The series aims to assist policymakers to enable the use of technology in consonance with India’s rich constitutional ethos. As the world’s largest democracy with hundreds of millions of internet users, India remains one of the most important global frontiers for responsible technology development.