India on Sunday signed a joint statement by G7 countries on “open societies”, which upholds “human rights for all, both online and offline” and the freedom of expression. The statement referred to “politically motivated internet shutdowns” as one of the threats to freedom and democracy.
However, India is a leading offender in this category. It recorded the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world in 2020, according to a report by digital rights and privacy organisation Access Now on March 3. Of the total 155 internet shutdowns globally, India alone accounted for 109, according to the report. The next highest was Yemen, with six shutdowns, and Ethiopia with four.
The “2021 Open Societies Statement” was endorsed at the end of an outreach session titled “Building Back Together – Open Societies and Economies”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the event virtually as a lead speaker.
India, South Korea, Australia and South Africa, which were the guest countries to this year’s G7 summit, signed the joint statement along with the Group of Seven comprising the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, Canada, France, Germany and Italy.
“We are at a critical juncture, facing threats to freedom and democracy from rising authoritarianism, electoral interference, corruption, economic coercion, manipulation of information, including disinformation, online harms and cyber attacks, politically motivated internet shutdowns, human rights violations and abuses, terrorism and violent extremism,” the 2021 Open Societies Statement read.
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Modi had on Sunday said India was a natural ally of G7 countries in defending “shared values” from authoritarianism, terrorism and violent extremism, disinformation and economic coercion. He also stressed on the need to ensure that cyberspace remains an avenue for advancing democratic values and not for subverting it, the prime minister’s office said.
The prime minister called upon technology companies and social media platforms to ensure a safe cyber environment for the users, Additional Secretary (economic relations) of the Foreign Ministry, P Harish, said in a press briefing on the G7 summit. The comments assume significance on the domestic front also, as the Centre and social media companies tussle over the implementation of new information technology rules.
On May 5, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had attended an event with his foreign counterparts and other politicians and highlighted the need for “careful nurturing” of open societies and personal freedoms. “Must be on guard against fake news and digital manipulation,” he had said.
The Indian government had imposed a virtual communications blackout in Jammu and Kashmir when it abrogated the erstwhile state’s special status on August 5, 2019, and split it into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. It was only after 18 months that authorities in Jammu and Kashmir announced that 4G mobile internet services will be restored in the entire Union Territory. Similar tactics were used to quell demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the recent farmer protests.