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Internet freedom report: What does it say about India?

Freedom House, a US-based independent watchdog working in the domain of political and civil liberties, recently released its fifth annual report analyzing the global state of freedom over the internet.

Internet access is not available to almost 80% of the schools in India. Photo: AFP/shutterstock.com
Internet access is not available to almost 80% of the schools in India. Photo: AFP/shutterstock.com

Freedom House, a US-based independent watchdog working in the domain of political and civil liberties, recently released its fifth annual report analyzing the global state of freedom over the internet.

The report made headlines highlighting the finding that freedom over the internet in India is showing an upward trend for the second year in a row. It also put China in the position of the most oppressive nation when it comes to curtailing freedom of citizens over the internet.

A thorough analysis of the report will help us understand how governments across the globe are trying to throttle the expression of speech over the Internet, which is also referred to as the Great Leveler of the 21st century.

What is the report about?

As the name suggests, the report is an index that measures the degree of freedom that citizens of various countries enjoy while using the internet. It measures each country's level of internet and digital media freedom based on a set of methodology questions.

Considering the increasing technological convergence, the index also measures access and openness of other digital means of transmitting information, particularly mobile phones and text messaging services. The index scores 65 countries which have been chosen to represent a mix of geographical diversity, economic development while displaying varying levels of political and media freedoms. The 2015 report is for the duration of June 2014 to May 2015.

How does the index measure "Freedom"?

Freedom on the Net is measured using an index that is compiled after scoring responses to 21 questions and 100 sub questions. These questions are divided into three categories - Obstacles to Access, Limits on Content and Violations of User Rights

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Points are allotted to each question such that a lower number of points is allotted for a more free situation, while a higher number of points is allotted for a less free environment. Points add up to produce a score for each of the subcategories, and a country's total points for all three represent its final score (0-100). Based on the score, Freedom House assigns the following internet freedom ratings:

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What are the incidences or actions that are flagged as threatening for a county's freedom over the internet?

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What are the important global trends in the 2015 report?

Content removal i.e. takedown or deletion of specific webpages, blogs, videos or articles by the platform hosting it or the user uploading is taking precedence over blocking or filtering such websites/platforms. Blocking or filtering are known to be ineffective with growing use of circumvention (proxies) and encryption tools. This trend is worrying as it aims to censor content at the point of origin and puts the burden of censorship on intermediary platforms and citizens.

Increasing number of requests for content removal received by platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter are a testimony to this trend. Private service providers have to often make the hard choice between free speech considerations and business interests in the country where such requests originate. Incidences in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are citied in the report to highlight legal actions taken against individuals for not complying with government legislations mandating take down of content.

Inspite of the public backlash against state sponsored surveillance in 2013, as many as 14 countries came up with new laws to increase surveillance over the last year. Laws that mandate ISPs to retain metadata - usually the time, origin, and destination of communications, or in some cases the actual content of internet traffic have been passed by countries under the guise of strengthening investigative capacities of law enforcement agencies. Australia, UK and Italy passed laws that increased the time duration of retention of such data, while France, after the Charles Hebdo incident has mandated installation of "Black Boxes" by ISPs that will enable governments to collect and analyze metadata from their networks. Trade in surveillance technologies is thriving in a market fuelled by demand from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Bahrain with credible evidence to prove their use against lawyers, activists and even politicians.

Governments all over the world are re-looking at the standards of data encryption in use for internet communication. Many countries (including India) are placing limits on the availability of encryption services. Anonymity offered by the internet is been targeted by associating it with terrorist activities and banning of circumventing and encryption tools like TOR and VPN connections from been used for communication over the internet.

The most worrying trend however, is that of increasing risk to activists. Offline punishments for online expression has seen an increase not only in numbers but also in the severity as authorities as well as criminal elements have repeatedly sought to make public examples out of internet users who showed opposition to their agenda.

What content is blocked the most around the world?

Content related to these topics is blocked the most across the world.

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What does the report say about India?

India's score has shown a drop from 42 points in 2014 to 40 in this year's report. Also the trend of India moving up the internet freedom index has been constant for two years now. This year's better score is single handedly attributed to the Supreme Court's judgement that declared section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act as contravening to the provisions of the Indian Constitution. India also maintained her position of third largest Internet user base, behind Unites States and China. Further, the report notes positive developments in the regulatory framework, decline in the detentions for online speech and a steady increase in digital access.

India however faces an uphill task on all three criteria of the index. On the access front, while mobile users are driving the growth of India, significant milestones still need to be achieved to ensure last mile connectivity. India has one of the lowest base speeds for broadband and internet access is not available to almost 80% of the schools in the country. Plans to take broadband internet to gram panchayats through the National Fiber Optic Network have not progressed at expected pace.

Language is a significant barrier to access in India, with only 12% English speaking population, lack of content in local language itself distances 50% of the population from effectively using the Internet. The success of the Digital India campaign in taking internet to the yet unconnected will be analyzed in future reports.

Content blocking still continues to show an upward trend in India, with Facebook receiving the maximum number of requests from India to block content. While section 66A was scrapped, section 69A of the IT Act and the content blocking rules framed under it were upheld by the Supreme Court. These rules bring in an element of intermediary liability that has been noted to be unfair in the report. The report cites examples of the ban on the documentary "India's Daughter", ban on pornographic websites and other bans imposed by the government to highlight arbitrary content blocking in India.

The situation of user rights violation is comparatively better in India. The number of cases filed for content posted online has shown a significant decline. This may again be due to dropping of charges after section 66A was rendered invalid by the Supreme Court. The complaints and arrests were for different types of social and political content, much of it for statements against politicians. The report also stats that the legal framework in India is vaguely defined and law enforcement agencies are not adequately trained on handling cases that involve cyber-bully, women and child abuse, infringement on user privacy etc.

The report applauds the vibrant public debate on the issue of Net Neutrality that happened after the TRAI rolled out a consultation paper seeking public opinion on regulation of over-the-top (OTT) applications. It stresses on the need pass a privacy legislation that keeps user interests at its core and warns about mass surveillance projects like the Central Monitoring System (CMS) and NETRA that are planned to allow law enforcement agencies to tap into various forms of communications. The impact of various blackouts in Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir that have happened later this year will significantly dent the prospects of a better ranking for India next year.

The Freedom on the Net report for India is a one stop document for policy makers to understand issues that got public attention for violation of online freedom of speech. A detailed analysis of the report by DeitY will enable the government to understand the ground realities of an India that is rapidly ascending to the top of internet users in the world. The Government would do well to take cognizance of this elaborate research work and incorporate its findings in future policy and legal decisions.

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