Why you should care
Because when India gets Wi-Fi’d, its citizens will have a whole lot more power.
The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in Bangalore is a kind of hacker club for wonks and lawyers obsessed with issues of digital rights and global development. Not exactly the mainstream kids’ lunch table. But the Center was brought into sudden relief this week, thanks to … Mark Zuckerberg.
In a splashy bit of news, India’s telecom authority rejected a program called Free Basics, which the Facebook team had been promoting as a way to get free Internet to the masses. (Here on the subcontinent, more than 300 million people use the Internet — but that’s only about a quarter of the population.) The idea: Facebook would allow free access to a handful of websites (the “basics”) to everyone; users would pay for further content. The objections: On the dramatic end came comparisons to colonialism; on the wonkier, objections based on the principles of net neutrality, or the idea that all Internet content should be treated the same. The threat the critics saw in Free Basics was that of the Web as a two-lane highway — the free stuff for the poor folks, and the good stuff for those who can afford it.
Mumbai-based Sanjena Sathian spoke to CIS cofounder and policy director Pranesh Prakash about the changing landscape of web rights that led up to the news.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tell us what you’re thinking in the wake of India’s decision.
The order seemed to fix the issue with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. It over-regulates and bans things that are beneficial along with that that aren’t. They should have aimed for discriminatory pricing, but they’ve instead eliminated all differential pricing, even when it’s not discriminatory.
What should come next, in my opinion — it is imperative to ensure that governmental resources are used to provide free access to the Internet. If you’ve taken away something that could have helped and said no, no, no, it’s not good for you, then you are under an obligation to provide a replacement.
How do you think the larger political conversations going on in India right now seep into the debates about digital rights?
Many people think the largest divider is between those who are from a developing country or a developed country. I think the larger divide is between those who are politically skeptical of states — more libertarian — versus those who are more trusting of states and see states as having a role to play in Internet governance. How you think the poor in India should get Internet — should that be provided by government or by market mechanisms — well, your political philosophies will play a role. In India, one tends to find fewer free-market fundamentalists than one would meet in, say, San Francisco.
I think, increasingly, post-Snowden in particular, people think of digital rights as human rights. Where do you see things going wrong on a rights front here in India?
Oh, wow … so many ways. In India we have a situation where, right now, more than 3,000 websites were blocked by the government, but no one knows what these sites are. No one knows whether they were blocked through mechanisms that ensure accountability. There is no transparency around any of these. And this is just the visible tip of the iceberg. And how do I know this? I sent a right-to-information request to the government and they gave me this answer. But beyond this, they put in place a few years ago a law which allows for websites and any kind of web content to be censored by anyone. And all they have to do is send a request to any “intermediary,” which could be anything from your ISP to your web host to your DNS provider.
Wait, so what does that mean? I get annoyed at a site — where do I go to lodge my complaint?
All these websites are required by the law to appoint a particular person as a “grievance redressal officer.”
What a title!
Yes … and there are more than 40 grounds for grievances that have been listed in the law, including things such as “causing harm to minors” and certain speech being “disparaging.” Now, I engage in disparaging speech at least 12 times a day. And that’s perfectly legal under Indian law!
Eep. Any good news, though?
A case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, [involving a young woman named] Shreya Singhal. There was a section 66A, quite an odious provision, that allowed for any kind of “offensive” or “annoying” speech to cause that person to be put in prison for up to three years.
Two teenage girls in Maharashtra, upon the death of a politician, put out a comment on social media. The death had caused a bandh, a curfew of sorts in Mumbai, and done not officially by the government but by political party workers. One girl said on Facebook, sure, go ahead, respect this politician, but why inconvenience so many citizens? Her friend liked this. And a case was launched against them. Similarly, some cartoons by an anticorruption activist were challenged and he was imprisoned briefly and released on bail.
It’s always the cartoonists.…
Yes, and one professor in Calcutta — for forwarding a cartoon, he was placed under this law too. Many cases of perfectly fine political speech were made illegal thanks to this law. Eventually, though, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court struck down this law, and this is the first time in almost three decades that the Supreme Court has struck off an entire law for being unconstitutional.
But, yes. Mostly? It’s not been pretty.