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Growing the Internet 3 December 2014

Empowerment through online rights in India

Noelle Francesca De Guzman
By Noelle Francesca De GuzmanSenior Advisor, Policy and External Engagement

Some of Kolkata’s best minds came together this week for the Asia Internet Symposium, a half-day dialogue organised by the Asia-Pacific Bureau and the Internet Society Kolkata Chapter. Seeking to ascertain the Internet’s role in human rights fulfillment in India, participants pieced together a picture of the local landscape, pointing to a number of barriers but also to ways by which this connection can be fully realised.

One is through active disclosure and transparency by the state. Government responses to requests for public data, to which citizens are entitled under India’s Right to Information Act, have led to numerous complaints and appeals now queued up at the Supreme Court—procedural delays that can be minimised if such information were made readily available online.

But bringing information to people who could benefit from it is only the first step.  The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) website for instance, is filled with work opportunities and entitlements for rural communities. Yet attendees stressed that with India’s rural literacy rate at a mere 69%, many citizens do not have the capacity to utilise or even look for content online. As APAC Bureau Regional Director Rajnesh Singh pointed out, the link between the Internet and user empowerment may be more apparent in urban spaces, where more people have both Internet access and rights awareness, but can be difficult to establish in smaller towns and villages, where communities may only have either one, or neither.

Yet the Internet, attendees argued, can still contribute to improving the socio-economic conditions of the unconnected. One way to do this is to encourage existing Internet users to positively impact the lives of those who have yet to gain access, for instance by spreading information found on the Internet to other community members who need it, or by cultivating locally relevant content for marginalised areas.  Such challenges led participants to concur that capacity-building indeed goes hand-in-hand with any guarantees to connectivity in India.

Amidst the increased prevalence of online data gathering–and users willingly surrendering their personal information online–education becomes crucial not only in expanding Internet penetration, but also in equipping Internet users with the knowledge and individual responsibility to safeguard their digital rights.

But just how much is the exercise of these rights protected in Indian law? Unlike freedom of expression, the right to privacy is not explicitly guaranteed by India’s constitution, although observers argue that it has long been interpreted by courts as implicit to Article 21, the right to life.  These rights, however, are now heavily circumscribed by the controversial Section 66A of the amended Information Technology Act, which slaps citizens with up to three years imprisonment for posting information that is ‘grossly offensive’, false, or misleading. The provision has been used to curb anything from political dissent to content that is considered blasphemous in India.

In response, AIS participants appealed for greater tolerance, especially among the ruling elite, on criticisms to their conduct, viewing this as integral to ensuring the free and unimpeded flow of information online. At the same time, they also called for more leniency by authorities, on the premise that given sufficient time, people will acclimatise enough to the online environment to exercise self-restraint, without the need for the state to impose restrictive controls.

ISOC Kolkata’s Anand Raje succinctly summed up the day’s discussion: At the heart of the Internet’s power is people—it is us who shape not only what the Internet is but what it can be used for. Ultimately, its potential to transform the lives of individuals and communities worldwide is limited only by what we allow—or do not allow—the Internet to be.

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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