Name: Vagisha Priya Srivastava
College: VIT University, Vellore
Access to the internet is not a mere luxury anymore. It’s a basic requirement of life. Whichever sphere of life would be taken into consideration, the internet has marked its presence. From doing your regular job, staying connected with people or getting your daily dosage of news to getting food and products delivered at our doorsteps, we are all dependent on the internet. With the advancement in Grid and edge computing, it is getting easier to connect more and more things to the internet with a motive of making human life simpler and easier.
The internet has come out to be like another dimension that exists for people to experience. Considering that, it won’t be right if only some part of a society gets to access it and others remain unknown of its existence. Human development can’t happen without the inclusion of information and the flow of information is a complex task, if not for the cyberspace.
In summer of 2016, UN termed access to the internet as a basic human right. United Nations Human Rights Council added a section 32 to the Article 19, releasing a non-binding resolution condemning intentional disruption of internet access by governments. The resolution reaffirmed that "the same rights people have offline must also be protected online".
Section 32 adds – The promotion, protection, and enjoyment of the human rights on the internet.
Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of civil liberties group Article 19, said that the resolution was a much-needed response to increased pressure on the freedom of expression online in all parts of the world. He further added - "While the resolution articulates strong human rights standards, the global situation for freedom of expression online demands more specific and detailed commitment from states to address other priority issues, In future HRC resolutions, states must tackle these issues head-on, including abusive laws that target legitimate online dissent, government efforts to undermine anonymity and encryption, and attempts to exert undue pressure on private ICT actors to engage in censorship."
Why is it important?
Cyberspace, unlike the normal world, is a world without boundaries. It’s truly global in its nature. Governing an area without boundaries is a difficult task. Whose laws will be used to govern? In the state of a conflict between nations whose rules should be abided by? With the growth of the population in the cyberspace, it’s important that their basic rights are protected in the virtual world too. Though virtual, the people using it are very real.
Human rights are the basic rights which must be available to a person to live his life freely with dignity. How does Access to the internet fit into this picture? One take on this could be the availability of information. If the internet could be defined in a sentence, it would be the quick availability of information. Information sharing is transitive to Education. And thus internet empowers a person.
According to Prof. Nicholas Negroponte – it’s a network of peers that help education and not information alone. Internet helps you connect with people living in different parts of the world.
Use of the internet favors other rights as well, like the right to freedom of expression. The Internet has a lot of public forums and social media networks that enable the user to express his views openly online. The internet has become an essential source of information, commerce and knowledge sharing platform. And thus, a free internet and open access at a fair and affordable price are very important.
During the session of UN in which the resolution was passed, 14 countries showed reluctance in signing the whole of it. Countries like Russia, China and democracies like South Africa rejected the motion saying they objected the clause - “that condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to our dissemination of information online.” Countries that asked for restrictions are big nations that have a say in the world. Them restricting the content that goes on the internet is very much like controlling the internet and holding power in the country.
Internet shutdowns, surveillance, and possible solution
Internet shutdowns are a common practice in many nations. 2/3rd of the internet users reside in countries where ‘criticism of the government, military or ruling family are subjected to censorship’ . Most justify it with state concerns or to curb violent activities in an area. However, that is not a valid reason. UN is against governments shutting down the internet at any time and especially during the times of emergency.
Digital surveillance and web scrutiny is another issue for the free internet resolution. In the past year alone there were 38 countries that made arrests based on the social media posts. If it was a result of web scrutiny is still doubtful. Surveillance tool companies like Mer, develop big data software that is used by the government to track down and monitor internet activities. On one hand, it’s is important to have a watch over the content on the internet because otherwise, it might hamper other rights and laws. For example, Child pornography and trafficking can only be solved if there is a watch on the internet. But invading people’s personal life in the name of security is not justified.
There are various analogies that would support the argument. One of the very common ones is - “If a robber and common public are using the same road to travel, would you block the road or would you rather implement proper security measures.”
Shutdowns have been happening mostly for three reasons – Security, failure to understand the severity of the situation and lack of a proper plan for an alternative solution.
Internet was a quick invention and has been growing exponentially ever since. It’s security infrastructure, however, wasn’t properly laid. In India itself, we don’t have a proper infrastructure to support the crowd on the internet and thus we have more people with violated rights. Internet shutdowns have been a common practice in India. Kashmir being a famous ground for the shutdowns. Whatever the reason, the steps are not valid.
Shutdowns cause a major loss in the economy as well. Businesses connected online, millions are lost because of the unavailability of the internet. A technical aspect to understand here is how shutdowns happen. The Internet is owned by multiple private parties. We call them ISPs. Now, these ISPs have the authority to shut down your internet for various reasons. Understand it this way, if you do not recharge your internet plan, your ISP will cut your internet service until you pay. These ISP’s, though not owned by the government, are obliged to follow their countries government when the government states a matter of security concerns.
This is not always the case. In 2015, Iraq had 15 shutdowns. The concern wasn’t security but do not allow students from cheating in the exam. As proposed, there is no universal kill switch to stop the internet from working. It’s held by multiple private parties and most of the times (eg. In the US) the government has no say in it. (Digital surveillance is a major issue in the US and not internet shutdowns.)
70 countries, however, were welcoming towards the petition. The officials may state otherwise but even after the resolution, there have been shutdowns happening. Free internet is a need today and it can’t be taken away from the citizens of power. It, however, is a non-binding resolution, cannot be bound by law.
India’s Take on the issue
In India, right to privacy this year was a breath of fresh air but with the current schemas that are followed, it is seemingly difficult to understand how that right might be of any help. If you curb the right of freedom of expression by shutdowns, right to privacy has a very little role to play after that.
Today, the government (not only Indian but all) should prioritize other, more effective and sustainable means to address security or public order threats rather than resorting to shutting down the internet.
Many reports stated that India opposed the resolution which many officials denied. India did not deny to the complete resolution rather it had a problem with one of the clauses that stated the government will hold no power to the control on the information online and that restriction can’t be applied to it. There were two basic flaws in the report [the wire], firstly, the resolution was an oral revision, there was no vote and secondly, India did not deny to the full of it.
Nonetheless, restriction of any sort was condemned by the UN stating that internet should exist free and open to all. After a recent case, Supreme Court of India declared internet access as a basic right until and unless it comes in way of other fundamental rights or finds its way into the boundaries of illegality. Kerela became the first state to declare Internet as a basic right for every citizen.
This verdict came after many cases where the right to internet access was curtailed using several legal loopholes. The right to privacy has made this verdict go even stronger. Still, there exist various flaws to it. With the growth of organized cyber crimes and normal crimes that are organized online (eg. Human trafficking, child pornography, gambling, and bidding) it is difficult to control it without a certain type of surveillance.
Then again internet shutdowns, for example, the Kashmir stone pelting or the JNU issue or other incidences where maintenance of peace was tried by shutting the internet down in that area is a wrong way to enforce security. There are other measures that can be followed and that can ensure national security, curbing people’s freedom of expression for it stands invalid, especially in times where the sharing of information is more important.
Though a major percentage of the population has access to the internet not all the parts of the society are properly represented on it. Thus, the polls, the surveys happening on the internet might not be accurate for all sects of the society. More time spent on the internet gives an individual an illusion that things that haven’t happened online haven’t happened in real life. There is a big rift that still exists between offline life and online life. And it will still take many more years to fill in.
Another issue is that the gender equality is missing on the internet. Hopefully, enforcing internet as a human right might help in filling that gap. More and more people need to access the internet, not merely for the ease that it provides but also because they might miss out important things otherwise.
Organised cyber crimes are one of the major issues on the internet today and it will be difficult to regulate it. One reason because of the global nature of the internet. Imposing laws beyond boundaries is a hard task and that is why such issues need to be tackled on a global scale.
Even after all such problems, the internet is a great tool for education and empowerment of various sections of the society and thus everyone must have access to it.
As mentioned before, the right to free internet will help enforce other important rights on the internet. An individual holds certain rights on the internet and that needs to be protected. The government needs to ensure that every citizen, like electricity and water, has the facility to access the internet as well because honestly, it is that important. And the netizens along with their governments need to make sure that the rights of people already on the internet are protected. The Internet has managed to seep into all the basic spheres of our life and it’s important to keep it free from influence and to protect other rights on it.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article or any other publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Sadvidya or its members.