When Tim Berners Lee, the acknowledged architect of the World Wide Web, presented the first blueprint of an open internet, he had prophesised that it would be a revolutionary technological protocol. Lee had a romantic vision for the democratisation of the internet, which was essentially a closed network with antecedents in military espionage, warfare, and cryptographic transfer of confidential information. For Lee, the emergence of diverse, polyphonic voices would constitute digital freedom, reinforcing the value of individual freedom afresh.
However, we have seen that digital freedom is not easily acquired. Once possessed, it needs continuous guarding against authoritative governments, autocratic political parties, and mercenary corporations who offer us the vision of collective freedoms that are less than the sum total of our individual freedoms.
One way of they ensure this is to restrict the way in which we imagine the use of the internet. In most debates, we concentrate on the internet as something that allows us to do and say things. The focus is on action and words. We forget that the internet is also about being and living. The digital technologies are not just about performing tasks. They are also defining how we live and love, how we can think and express ourselves and who we connect with. When our right to do and say supersede our right to be and to think, we enter a delirium where the scope of digital freedom is severely restricted and reduced by conditions of elimination and threat. If we examine the Digital India policy propositions, it should strike us that we seem to have lost track of who we want to be and who shall be responsible for our modes of life and living. It has resulted in a new notion of selective freedom, which shall be bestowed as a reward for those who say and do what the powers that be command, rather than freedom as a constitutional and foundational right enshrined in the netizens of the country.
Perhaps, one of the most striking examples of this is the Aadhaar project that refuses to be defined and continues to defy the doctrine of privacy rights that are endemic to our constitutional identity. Almost all defence of Aadhaar rests on what it can do, what it can enable, who can do things around it and with it. In the blinkered focus on transactional data economies, almost all concern about individual rights and freedoms, like privacy, are dismissed. This is why the deliberations of the Supreme Court about the validity of privacy in Digital India are extremely important. The court shall hopefully look upon privacy not as a transactional commodity which can be traded off for convenience, but as an inalienable right that defines our very conditions of being. The signals that it gives us about privacy of our data have a clear correlation with the privacy of our selves. While data privacy is indeed about what can be done and said, our individual privacy is about who we can be and how we can live. And, one set cannot be separated from the other.
Thus, when we hear about yet another data breach in Aadhaar, by an engineer who was able to sell private information for personal profit, we need to think of it not as a question of data security but individual safety. The defenders of Aadhaar will quickly point out that the data breach is about technology, access, circulation, and ownership of data. They will mount investigations about data security and new measures to penalise such hacks.
In this technocentric focus, they will ignore once again the fact that personal safety, individual privacy, and our rights to life and dignity are compromised by a system that is unable to protect the very people it seeks to serve.
The questions of privacy are not separate from or tangential to Aadhaar — they are fundamental to the very imagination of a project that decided to sacrifice individual safety and freedom in the quest of a techno-solutionist vision, one which engineered process instead of engaging with people. As we celebrate our 70th Independence day, this is not something that we should even have to spell out, but individual freedom has to be the single most important right that our government protects.
There is a continued rhetoric that there is an illusory national or collective freedom that must take precedence over individual freedom and liberty — a sentiment that was acutely expressed during the demonetisation debacle, which demanded that the individual rights of livelihood and financial security be sacrificed at the governmental altar of digital doing and accounting.
Digital freedom remains a goalpost that we must keep moving towards. However, digital freedom, when posited as an adversary to personal freedom, should always lose. Our governments, policymakers and technosocial leaders owe it to us to create a digital India that puts people’s freedom first.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.