Internet freedom in India declined for a third straight year in 2019-’20, democracy watchdog Freedom House said on Wednesday. The period from June 1, 2019 to May 30, 2020 was under consideration. The watchdog said India had the most number of internet shutdowns in the world, even excluding the ones in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
The watchdog said that India’s score on freedom of the internet had declined from 55 out of 100 in 2018-’19 to 51 in 2019-’20. It labelled India’s internet as “partly free”. Three categories were used to assess internet freedom – obstacles to access (India scored 12 points out of 25), limits on content (21 out of 35) and violations of user rights (18 out of 40).
Freedom House said that in the period under question, government authorities increasingly shut down internet connectivity in order to suppress protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. There were spyware campaigns targeting human rights defenders, and international platforms were increasingly pressured to remove content that was critical of the government’s Hindu nationalist agenda and its scrapping of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the organisation said. The removal included political, social and cultural content.
“Meanwhile, both the CAA protests and Covid-19 pandemic led to an information environment plagued by disinformation, often pushed by political leaders themselves,” Freedom House said. “Within this environment, women, religious and marginalized communities in particular experienced online harassment and trolling. In a positive development, the Supreme Court laid down certain safeguards to be followed by the government before ordering internet shutdowns.”
The watchdog also said that there was increased harassment of journalists, government critics and marginalised communities under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. “Two separate coordinated spyware campaigns were uncovered targeting journalists, activists, lawyers, and other human rights defenders,” it said. “Activist Anand Teltumbde was targeted by both spyware campaigns and subsequently arrested in April 2020, with the case reportedly relying heavily on information pulled from his electronic devices.” Teltumbde is an accused in the Elgar Parishad case.
The United States-based watchdog said government officials attempted to control the online narrative about the coronavirus pandemic, issuing restrictions on reporting, arresting and detaining many people for their online posts, and forcing users to remove content from their social media accounts.
“In March 2020, it was reported that the government planned to build a large database called the National Social Registry that could track every Indian and allegedly capture a 360-degree view of their lives,” Freedom House said. “The registry will include data captured in relation to any government services and benefits, including Aadhaar, and is expected to be functional by 2021.”
“In March 2020, it was reported that the government planned to build a large database called the National Social Registry that could track every Indian and allegedly capture a 360-degree view of their lives. The registry will include data captured in relation to any government services and benefits, including Aadhaar, and is expected to be functional by 2021.”— Freedom House
The watchdog also flagged privacy and security concerns about the government’s coronavirus-tracking app Aarogya Setu, launched in April, which it said was closed-source. Freedom House said the app had been made mandatory, while states such as Karnataka had launched their own apps. However, NITI Aayog Chief Executive Officer Amitabh Kant had said in May that the app had been made open-source,