The year 2014 could be a seminal moment in how the world thinks about the internet. There is a new urgency in the way countries approach internet governance in the wake of revelations by Edward Snowden of pervasive online espionage by the United States’s National Security Agency, often in cahoots with its counterparts in Australia, the UK and Canada, among others. But such close attention might do more harm to the ideal of a free-wheeling internet relatively unencumbered by the constraints imposed upon free speech by the brick-and-mortar world — or so finds the annual global Freedom of the Net report. Although India acquitted itself well, improving its score by five points over last year, there has been an overall increase in online censorship. More countries are also adopting more aggressive surveillance practices, whether to stifle dissent or in the name of national security.
India must not rush to pat itself on the back for bucking the global trend. The removal of interim restrictions on access and content that had been imposed in 2013 in response to the perceived social media-fuelled outflow of Northeasterners from elsewhere in India accounted for much of the improvement. And though the use of social media as a tool to marshal support and organise protest is more typically associated with repressive regimes, the use of Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp by, for instance, the Aam Aadmi Party in the 2013 Delhi assembly elections to mobilise voters, and by the LGBT community to coordinate outrage after the Supreme Court’s re-criminalisation of homosexual intercourse in December 2013, also contributed. But a decline in the number of people booked under the arbitrary Section 66A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, after a spate of negative publicity, proved temporary, and recent reports of charges filed under it are a reminder of the imperative of reform. The Supreme Court, which is hearing a case that challenges the constitutionality of Sections 66A and 74 of the IT Act, thankfully appears to have taken note of how prone to abuse these provisions are and directed the Centre to clarify its stand.
That’s not all. It is counterintuitive that a state with India’s formidable reputation in IT would have such significant lacunae in laws to govern the internet. Perhaps the most glaring is the absence of a law that would enshrine the right to privacy and elucidate procedures for lawful interception of online communication. But there are plenty of other areas of concern that the statute books are silent on — net neutrality, for instance.