Studying the Internet Discourse in India through the Prism of Human Rights
Deva Prasad M
The significance of Internet as an important element and tool in day-to-day life of mankind is an established experiential fact. The intrinsic value that Internet brings to our lives has transformed the access to Internet as a necessity. Internet’s intrinsic value acts an enabling tool for information, communication and commerce to be effectively and expeditiously carried forward. It is to due to this enormous intrinsic value attached with Internet that there is an emerging trend of exploring Internet from the perspective of human rights. Moreover, Internet as a medium also helps in furtherance of human rights . Social movements have attained a new lease of life with the digital activism over Internet. Arab spring is an epitome of this phenomenon.
There is an emerging positive trend of linking established norms of human rights with Internet. The Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression has vividly explained the possibility and feasibility of extending and extrapolating the right of freedom of opinion and expression to Internet medium (Article 19 of the UDHR and the ICCPR) . The Special Rapporteur also highlights the need to have access to Internet for effective enjoyment of right to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital sphere. The UN High Commissioner on Human Right’s report on ‘The Right To Privacy In The Digital Age’ also explicitly highlights the significance of protecting the right to privacy in the internet medium in light of extensive “surveillance and the interception of digital communications and the collection of personal data” . The extensive interception and blocking of the online communication is also a pertinent reason, which calls for human right protection to be extended to Internet.
The WSIS Declaration for Building of Information Society  and the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet  also have played a significant role in furthering the inter-linkage between human rights and Internet.
The Internet and human rights policy developments have gathered significant relevance in international human rights law and Internet policy fora. But it is interesting to note that the Indian government and state institutional mechanisms have not yet pro-actively accepted relevance of applying human rights norm to the Internet medium in India.
As an essay in the Studying Internet series, it is important to highlight how human rights acts as underlying factors in many socio-political issues pertaining to Internet in India. Analysis of these issues helps us to understand that, even though the Indian state turns a blind eye to the human rights element in the various socio-political issues relating to Internet, the digitally conscious Indian’s have realized their rights and even fought their own battle for exercising their rights.
In recent years, the Internet discourse in India has witnessed many socio-political concerns. This essay would be exploring the pertinent socio-political issues in Indian context and the underlying link to human rights thread. Globally, exploring Internet from the perspective of human rights brings out multitude of issues, which requires application of established human rights norms of right to privacy, freedom of expression, access. The story in India is no different. In this regard, three socio-political issues relating to Internet, which gained much attention in India roughly in last one year, are being analyzed. Interestingly, all three issues have an underlying thread of human right perspective connecting them and need pertinent deliberation from human rights perspective.
Section 66A and Freedom of Speech and Expression
The lack of freedom of expression on Internet and Section 66A of Information Technology Act, 2000 is an interesting case study. Indian government used Section 66A as a tool for extensive surveillance and had taken criminal legal action against the Internet and social media users for posting the offensive comments and posts. But Section 66A was badly drafted allowing the government to initiate criminal legal action in an arbitrary and whimsical manner. Thus such a provision could be misused by the state for curbing the freedom of expression in the Internet sphere. The rampant usage of the Indian state machinery of Section 66A had led to sharp reaction amongst the Internet and social media users in India. The vagueness in language and unconstitutionality of Section 66A were criticized by legal experts. The action of state machinery in arresting a cartoonist, a professor and two girls in Maharashtra  (and many others) for comments and post on social media against politicians, had made it evident the lack of respect for freedom for speech and expression on Internet by the Indian state machinery (Most of these incidents took place during the year 2012). These incidents led to wide spread protest for violation of human right to freedom of speech and expression by the digital media users. When the Public Interest Litigation  filed by Shreya Singhal led to the Supreme Court striking down the Section 66A on 24th March, 2015 for lack of due process being followed, it was a water shed moment for internet discourse in India. The significance of human rights (especially the freedom of speech and expression) in the Internet medium got asserted.
Net Neutrality and Internet Access Issue
The recent net neutrality debate in India has also evoked deliberation about the right of equal access to Internet and the need to maintain Internet as a democratic space. The net neutrality debate on keeping Internet a democratic space that is equally accessible to everyone has got much vogue in India. An important point that needs to be emphasized in the debate regarding net neutrality in India is the equal access question being raised. The equal access question is more a product of the lack of regulatory clarity regarding TRAI’s (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) capacity to regulate the Over-the top (OTT) services; coupled with the lack of well stipulated right to internet access in the Indian context.
The net neutrality rides on the premise that the entire data available on the Internet should be equally accessible to everyone. No discrimination should be allowed regarding access to a particular website or any particular content on the Internet. Tim Wu, a renowned scholar in Internet and communication law has mentioned in his seminal work, Network Neutrality and Broadband Discrimination, that network neutrality signifies “an Internet that does not favor one application” .
In this regard, there has been a constructive dialogue between the Federal Communication Commission in United States and the various stakeholders. An interesting development was a proposition, which attempted to classify broadband internet service access as a public utility . There is much relevance for such debates in the Indian context. India also needs public participation (especially strong voices from internet user’s perspective) to highlight these access concerns regarding Internet. Human right’s concerns regarding Internet should be pro-actively brought to the attention of regulatory institutions such as TRAI. There is need to balance the economic and for-profit interest of service providers with the larger public interest based on equal access.
The pressure created by public opinion through online activism upon the TRAI’s proposal to regulate the OTT services helps in understanding the power of public participation in the pertinent human rights issues relating to Internet . The broader design in which the principle of human rights in the context of Internet medium would have to be asserted in India is also vividly seen in the case of protest against OTT regulation.
Right to be Forgotten in EU and Repercussions in India
The repercussions of ‘Right to be Forgotten’ judgment of European Union also had led to debate of similar rights in Indian context. The Google v. AEPD and Mario Cosjeta  is an interesting case decided by the Court of Justice of European Union, where the court held that based on the right to privacy and data protection, persons could ask databases (this case was against the search engine Google) on Internet medium to curtail from referring to certain aspects of their personal information . This is basically referred to as ‘right to be forgotten’.
Viktor Mayor Schonberg in his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in Digital Age has elaborated the problem of how the digital age coupled with the Internet has led to store, disseminate and track information in a substantially easy way and advocates for the more informational privacy rights . In this judgment, the Court of Justice of European Union has furthered the information privacy rights in the European Union with the ‘right to be forgotten’.
In the Indian context, it is important to note that information privacy rights are yet to evolve to the extent that of European Union with definite privacy and data protection law. But interestingly, there was a request made to a media news website by a person attempting to enforce the right to be forgotten . Even though the application of right to be forgotten is not directly applicable in the Indian context, this event throws light to the fact that Internet users in India are becoming conscious of their rights in the Internet space. The way Indian news media gave relevance to the right to be forgotten ruling also is an example of how there is an implicit recognition of the interlink between human rights and Internet that is slowly seeping into the Indian milieu.
Internet Discourse in India and Human Rights
Discussion of the three issues mentioned above points out to an important fact that human rights are not pro-actively applied to the Internet medium by the Indian state machinery. Even though the international human rights law and various Internet policy organizations are pushing the Internet and human rights agenda, the same is yet to gain momentum in India.
But at the same time, an interesting development that could be witnessed from the above discussion is the manner in which the Internet users are asserting their rights over the Internet and slowly paving the path for an enriching view towards applying the human rights perspective to Internet. In the first instance, the freedom of speech and expression was not pro-actively applied to the digital space and Internet. This has happened when Article 19 of Constitution of India has clearly provided for freedom of speech and expression. The second instance of net neutrality has thrown wide open the lack of clear policy regarding Internet access in Indian context. The public opinion has pointed out to the fact that there is a public interest demand to ensure that there is no discrimination in the case of Internet access. The third instance of looking at ‘right to be forgotten’ in Indian perspective, provides the understanding that the users of Internet are becoming conscious of their individual rights in the digital space in a more affirmative manner.
Further, the operationalization of human rights in these three instances also needs to be critically looked into. The assertion of the freedom of speech and expression in the Internet medium could be made possible effectively due to the fact that Article 19 of the Constitution of India, 1950, protects freedom of speech and expression. The vast amount of precedence existing in the field of freedom of speech and expression relating to constitutional litigation and allied jurisprudence has helped in crafting the extension of the right of freedom of expression to the digital medium of Internet. Further, using the social action tool of Public Interest Litigation, the unconstitutionality of Article 19 of the Constitution of India, 1950 could be brought before the Supreme Court.
But interestingly, the net neutrality issue, which is concerning the access to Internet in a non-discriminatory manner, is yet to be perceived in Indian context from a strong human rights perspective. Internet access as a public utility concept is yet to be evolved and articulated in concrete manner in the Indian context. Further, the Indian network neutrality discourse attempts to operationalize through the free market approach. In the free market approach the entire non-discriminatory access has to be ensured by the market competition with the necessary regulatory bodies. In this sense, the human rights angle of access to Internet will have to be ensured by effective competition in the market along with the proper oversight of regulatory bodies such as TRAI and Competition Commission of India. It is important for the regulatory bodies to have broad goals for furthering public interest by ensuring non-discriminatory access to Internet. Further, with the financial and infrastructure led limitations of government’s capability of ensuring access to Internet for all, the market-led model with sufficient regulation might be the right way forward.
Looking at the issue of the right to be forgotten, it could be easily perceived that the Indian milieu is yet to articulate privacy rights to that high standard. Even though the right to privacy is being understood in the constitutional law context through effective interpretation by the judiciary, the concept of digital privacy has not yet evolved in India. There is no collective understanding, till now, that has emerged regarding right to be forgotten in India. Even though individual attempts to assert the right was witnessed, there is much room for an evolved collective understanding in Indian context. Civil society organizations would have a crucial role to play in this regard.
There is an emerging consciousness amongst a set of Internet users in India, who values and gives importance to the Internet being a democratic space, without unwanted restriction from the government machinery or even the private entities. Hence looking at the Internet discourse of India from the perspective of human rights, there is an implicit way in which the human rights are being applied to the Internet space. The lack of a state’s pro-active approach in asserting human rights to Internet space is highlighted by the assertions being made by the Internet users in India.
For Internet to remain as a democratic space, there is need for pro-active application of these human rights norms and clear understanding in Internet governance. At present, the state of affairs in India regarding application of human rights to Internet is far from satisfactory.
This essay which is part of the ‘Studying Internet in India’ series, has till now done a stock taking analysis of emerging dimension of human rights and Internet in India. Lack of interest from government and state machinery to further the human rights and Internet dimension need to be seriously reconsidered. Attempting to intervene in Internet law and policy in India from the rights based approach should be an important agenda for furthering digital rights in India. For this, civil society organizations have an important role to play. Exploring the public interest could be done effectively with public participation of stakeholders. Here in, platforms such as India Internet Governance Forum could play a crucial role.
Apart from the civil society organizations, it is also pertinent for state and governmental institutional mechanism to also take a pro-active stance. For ensuring that the rights based approach to Internet has to be duly included in the Internet law and policy; and there should be institutional mechanism, which could look into areas pertaining to human rights and Internet. It is a well know fact that India lacks institutional mechanism for looking into communication and privacy issues regulation. Further, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also needs to look at the relevance of human rights for Internet. Inspiration could be drawn from the pioneering work of Australian Commission of Human Rights on applying human rights norms and standards to Internet medium . This essay has only flagged the need to apply the established human rights norms to Internet space. Much more issues such as access to Internet by disabled, safety of children and Internet medium are also pertinent areas.
Moreover, it is important to have digital rights of Internet users in India to be explicitly enshrined in a legal framework. Presently, a gap in law and policy framework regarding human rights and Internet is evident, as highlighted in this essay. The pertinent questions regarding access, privacy and freedom of expression are to be taken seriously by the government and state machinery for which clear and well-defined rights relating to Internet space have to be framed. For Internet and human rights to be taken seriously, it is high time that legal and institutional framework to explore these issues also are evolved.
Emphasizing the Right to Communication in India
Further, the present understanding of right to communication in India, which is perceived in narrow manner, could be re-worked with the help of a pro-active application of human rights norms to the Internet governance. The intrusion into the freedom of speech and expression especially in the telecommunication context has to be highlighted. Protection of communal harmony has been used as rationale for capping the number of the SMS messages that could be sent per day during the exodus of people of Northeastern states origin from Bangalore, Pune and other major cities in India.
This move has been criticized for being unreasonable and universality of capping the number of SMS messages . Further, the telecommunication and Internet services (especially Facebook and YouTube) were blocked in Kashmir for restricting the protest . The telecommunication and Internet services were blocked on the grounds of protection of national security. The reasonableness of restrictions that could be imposed on right to communication is a major concern in the above-mentioned instances. Making a blanket ban applicable in a universal manner undermines the right to communication of various genuine users of bulk messaging and social media sites.
The right to communication especially in the digital and telecommunication media needs to be emphasized. Applying human rights perspective and norms to Internet governance would help in articulating and evolving the right to communication in India. With adequate institutional oversight, the human rights norms could make the digital right to communication an effective right.
To conclude, the Internet discourse in India has already paved path for human rights norms to be applied to Internet space. The seriousness that could be attributed to those rights is evident by the assertions by the Internet users in India. But the state and government machinery in India also should explore the human rights and Internet agenda seriously.
 Frank La Rue, Report Of The Special Rapporteur On The Promotion And Protection Of The Right To Freedom Of Opinion And Expression, Available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/17session/A.HRC.17.27_en.pdf (Last accessed on 25/05/2015).
 Ibid, Special Rapporteur in the Report points out that the language of Article 19 of ICCPR is media neutral and is applicable to online media technological developments also. Para 20 and 21 of the Report.
 UN High Commissioner on Human Right, Report on ‘The Right To Privacy In The Digital Age’, Available at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session27/Documents/A.HRC.27.37_en.pdf (Last accessed on 25/05/2015).
 WSIS Declaration for Building of Information Society, Available at http://www.itu.int/wsis/docs/geneva/official/dop.html. (Last accessed on 25/05/2015). Article 58, WSIS Declaration reads as follows: “The use of ICTs and content creation should respect human rights and fundamental freedoms of others, including personal privacy, and the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in conformity with relevant international instruments”.
 Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet Available at http://internetrightsandprinciples.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/IRP_booklet_final1.pdf, (Last accessed on 25/05/2015).
 See Section 66A:Six Cases That Sparked Debate, Available at http://www.livemint.com/Politics/xnoW0mizd6RYbuBPY2WDnM/Six-cases-where-the-draconian-Section-66A-was-applied.html, (Last accessed on 25/05/2015). Also see, Facebook Trouble:10 Cases of Arrest Under Section 66A of IT Act, Available at http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/facebook-trouble-people-arrested-under-sec-66a-of-it-act/article1-1329883.aspx (Last accessed on 25/05/2015).
 Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, Available at http://indiankanoon.org/doc/110813550/ (Last accessed on 25/05/2015).
 Tim Wu, Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination, Available at https://cdt.org/files/speech/net-neutrality/2005wu.pdf (Last accessed on 25/05/2015).
 F.C.C. Approves Net Neutrality Rules, Classifying Broadband Internet Service as a Utility, Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/technology/net-neutrality-fcc-vote-internet-utility.html (Last accessed on 25/05/2015).
 The online campaign by www.savetheinternet.in and the AIB video have played a crucial role in gathering public support.
 Court of Justice of European Union, Case C-131/12.
 Rising like a Phoenix: The ‘Right to be Forgotten’ before the ECJ, Available at http://europeanlawblog.eu/?p=2351 (Last accessed on 25/05/2015).
 Viktor Mayor Schonberg, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in Digital Age, Princeton University Press (2009).
 Right to be Forgotten Poses A Legal Dilemma in India, Available at http://www.livemint.com/Industry/5jmbcpuHqO7UwX3IBsiGCM/Right-to-be-forgotten-poses-a-legal-dilemma-in-India.html, (Last accessed on 25/05/2015). Also see We received a Right to be Forgotten request from an Indian user, Available at http://www.medianama.com/2014/06/223-right-to-be-forgotten-india/ (Last accessed on 25/05/2015).
 Human Rights and Internet, Available at https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/rights-and-freedoms/projects/human-rights-and-internet (Last accessed on 25/05/2015).
 Chinmayi Arun, SMS Block as Threat to Free Speech, Available at http://cis-india.org/internet-governance/www-the-hindubusinessline-op-ed-sep-1-2012-chinmayi-arun-sms-block-as-threat-to-free-speech (Last accessed on 15/07/2015).
 Pamposh Raina and Betwa Sharma, Telecom Services Blocked to Curb Protests in Kashmir, Available at http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/21/telecom-services-blocked-to-curb-protests-in-kashmir/?_r=0 (Last accessed on 15/07/2015).
Author’s Note: All the views expressed are my own and in no way are linked to the opinion of my employers. I thank CIS for this opportunity to explore Internet and Human Rights interface in India as part of the Studying Internet in India essay series.
Deva Prasad is Assistant Professor at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore. In this essay, he analyses key public discussions around Internet related issues from the human rights angle, and explores how this angle may contribute to understanding the features of the Internet discourse in India.
This post was originally published on the CIS website as part of the ‘Studying Internets in India’ series. It is re-published here under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, and copyright is retained by the author.