"India is at a turning point for internet freedom of expression"

BY Mannika Chopra| IN Media Freedom | 15/12/2014
A new report on internet freedom says India is still only 'partly free' but has improved its score. India's weakest point is user rights since parts of the Indian IT Act have potential criminal liability for intermediaries,
Freedom House research analyst MADELINE EARP tells MANNIKA CHOPRA (Pix: Madeline Earp).
Freedom House, a Washington-based independent watchdog, was set up in 1942 to focus on the expansion of freedoms around the world, survey challenges to democracy and examine threats to fundamental rights. Four years ago, it launched its annual global report on Freedom on the Net which today covers 65 countries. While showing a general decline in the level of internet freedom, the report also found some positive trends. Last week, in partnership with the National Law University’s Centre for Communication Governance, Freedom House released its Freedom on the Net: India 2014 Report. The report revealed a five-point improvement in the country’s internet freedom status.
Freedom House is funded by many organisations including the US State Department, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Swedish International Development Agency and technology companies such as Yahoo, Facebook and Google.  Yet, as Madeline Earp, a research analyst for Asia who was in Delhi to release the India report says, the organisation remains “independent in thought and action.” 
Q: The Freedom on the Net global report shows that overall there has been a negative trajectory. How would you account for this?

A: Yes, 36 out of the 65 countries have shown a negative trend. One explanation is that in some of these countries new laws have been put in place, mostly by authoritarian regimes, which legitimise state control over the internet and criminalise online dissent. There has also been increasing intimidation: pressure on news websites, a growing persecution of digital journalists and the stepping up of regulation of web platforms. It’s easy to argue that national security trumps internet freedom and some countries have used that argument, for instance, Turkey and Russia, without any judicial oversight.

Q: But India seems to have gone against this trend and shown an improvement. It ranks 30 amongst 65 countries, in between Iceland at the top (with 6 points) and Iran right at the bottom (with 89 points).

A: Clearly, India has improved its status from 2012-2013 when it had a score of 47 compared to 42 this year - the lower the number the stronger the freedom index. India falls in the ‘Partly Free’ category and has a better ranking than Sri Lanka (which has been targeting Tamil journalists working online), Pakistan and Bangladesh. But it is in the same bracket as Malawi and Zambia. Essentially, India has merely got closer to its earlier status which in our 2011-2012 report was 36. In 2012-13, India’s score was higher because of social media sites being blocked during the northeast episodes. Her current standing has improved to the extent she has nearly retained her earlier position, prior to the spike last year, rather than by showing an overall improvement of freedoms or because of any new and genuine steps.
Q: The United States ranks sixth in the global overall ranking even though the whistleblower Edward Snowden revelations showed that its National Security Agency (NSA) carried out extensive global surveillance. How does America manage to come in sixth while India, which has not taken such steps, gets a much lower ranking?

A: A country’s overall ranking and scoring is based on a global methodology that we follow. There are three main components: obstacles to access, limits to content and violations of user rights. Surveillance is just one part. We are not saying that the US is a robust global model to follow and certainly the surveillance activities carried out by its security agencies have impacted  its freedom index but America’s privacy laws are very robust. India’s weakest point is user rights. Parts of the Indian IT Act have potential criminal liability for intermediary companies. The country also has a lot of obstacles to internet penetration and instances of text blocking in conflict zones like Jammu and Kashmir. 

And while the Central Monitoring System (CMS) set up in 2012 cannot be equated with the surveillance undertaken by the NSA, there is a level of scrutiny that is being undertaken by the establishment. We don’t know who is being monitored. There have been examples of the CMS being used for personal reasons. In our report, we have mentioned two cases in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

Q: Have the Snowden revelations actually led to more clamping down on the internet?

A: Ironically, the Snowden revelations have had a negative impact. People have woken up to what the establishment can do and many governments across the world, fearing the power of the new technologies, have found ways to filter, monitor, and otherwise obstruct the internet.

Q: The timeframe followed by your reports, May to May, has left out the new Narendra Modi government that came to power in May. What direction will this government take?

A: The calendar year we follow globally is for purely administrative reasons. Mr Modi doesn’t have a good track record for freedom of expression. His relationship with journalists has also not been very strong. But of course one can’t say anything for sure yet. India is at the turning point for freedom of expression issues if it fixes its communication architecture and its legal framework. Having said that, Mr Modi is business savvy and he is smart enough to realise that a good freedom of expression record is a useful tool for international investments.
Q: How can you correlate freedom on the net and the kind of abuse women face online?

A: This is a tricky issue. It’s important to realise that gender abuse is a social problem and the online world is a reflection of that. On the one hand, people have the right to express themselves. On the other, a social problem arises when you cross the line and right of expression turns into abuse, even into a vile, criminal activity which needs to be punished It is a cause for worry. But we should be even more worried when police take action when a politician or leader is targeted in this fashion but are not interested when that happens to a woman. This is more pernicious and inhibits women from being part of the online community.

Q: Is it difficult to put together such a report on India?

A: Yes, to the extent there is a lack of authentic information and transparency. We have no idea on, say, the number of cyber cafes that operate or have closed down because of the 2011 regulations or the number of sites that have been blocked by the government. Our partners, the Communication Governance Centre at NLU, very rightly have used only officially stated  figures. In the west, we would go by media reports. Here we cannot do that because those figures may or may not be wide of the mark. So accessing accurate data was a challenge.

Q: Do you think India can go the China way in curbing digital media freedom?

A: There is no danger of that because India is a democracy, a complex democracy but still a democracy.  Her internal environment is strong and civil society can take to legal recourse. The problem is that the legal recourse is not functioning optimally.
(Mannika Chopra writes on the media and can be contacted at mannikachopra@gmail.com.)

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