Matters India, August 03, 2020
By George Cheriyan and Aaradhna Gupta,
The world is going through an extraordinary time due to pandemic. It has become clear more than ever that the internet is a basic requirement.
Our modern lifestyle has evolved around the internet and it is no longer a luxury but has become an essential part of our life irrespective of economic, political, social or geographical circumstances. In the context of the pandemic, almost all activities, education, entertainment, socializing, and shopping, are now done online.
The New Normal
Internet is the new normal. However quality internet access is a privilege and is not available to everyone in India. Internet in India faces various challenges.
Accessibility: As per the latest data shared by TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) in February, India has around 1.15 billion wireless subscribers, of which around 660 million have access to broadband quality internet. Broadband in India is defined as equal to, or above 512 Kbps download speed.
So in a country of around 1.3 billion, only around half the country population currently has access to a decent standard of internet. The digital divide both in terms of infrastructure and digital literacy, is leaving behind the most vulnerable sections of our society deprived of the benefits of being online.
Affordability, According to the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) Price Trends 2019 by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), benchmarking 192 countries, India was among 33 countries where high-consumption mobile data and voice package can be purchased for less than one percent of per capita income.
Ironically, despite being ranked 130 out of 140 nations in terms of mobile data speed (at 11GB per month on average), an Indian broadband customer consumes more data than anybody else globally, thanks to the world’s lowest data tariff of just 3.5 rupees per GB. But for 300 million Indians living below poverty line who are not sure of securing two square meals a day, even a monthly usage charge of 200 rupees is too high, not to mention the device cost.
A 17-year-old girl committed suicide as she was not able buy a smartphone to attend her online classes, and a poor man was forced to sell his cow, his only source of income, for 6,000 rupees for buying a smartphone for online studies of his two children are recent examples. There are many like them who are affected by the online shift, even for education, resulting in addition of agony upon poor families in this time of pandemic.
Reliability and Shutdowns: The number of internet users in India has increased during the lockdown. The volume of traffic going from the customers to the servers has undergone a massive change. There has been an average of about 30 percent surge in consumption and the internet speed has gone down by 20 percent
In addition, India stands among the top country where the Shut Down of Internet is at maximum number. As per the Internet Shutdown Tracker run by the Software Freedom Law Center, in India the Internet Shutdown has been imposed for 100 times in 2019. The internet shut down has been so easy that in Rajasthan mobile internet curfew was imposed across state to curb cheating in Police Constable Exams. Such blanket restrictions on internet only worsen the ease of doing business.
Data Protection and Privacy: Control over the data and lives of an individual has increased in the digital world, technologies being encouraged to aid in humanitarian efforts have historically been used by governments and corporations alike to aid undemocratic surveillance and control. Incidents like the misuse of Aadhaar data by governments, or the misuse of Facebook data to influence voters have created a serious crisis of trust in digital technologies. Privacy concerns were raised about Zoom App or even Aarogya Setu App.
Strategy for Digitizing the Country: “Digital India” initiative by the government broadly claimed to be India’s strategy for digitizing the entire country. The main objective is to spread awareness including Rural and underdeveloped cities as the major targets for taking this initiative further. In gaping digital divide that exists, low internet penetration, is a setback, making its effectiveness highly restricted. Even where it is connected, network strengths are feeble, resulting in deplorable speed even in 4G networks. Poor digital literacy, language barriers and lack of understanding of new technologies are also obstacles.
Current situation reinforces the argument for recognising internet access as an indispensable part of human life that needs to be guaranteed, promoted and protected by the State.
Looking into the legal aspect of declaring internet as basic right, internationally, Constitutional freedom of expression consists of what Article 19 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen indicated: “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. In July 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that, among other provisions, “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law.” The resolution also affirms that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression,” in accordance with Articles 19–22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Kerala High Court last year held that the right to have access to the internet is part of the fundamental right to education as well as the right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution. In a ruling came on hearing a plea in connection with Internet blockade in J&K, the Supreme Court of India has declared access to Internet as fundamental right and a government cannot deprive its citizen of fundamental right, except under certain conditions explicitly mentioned in the Constitution of India.
It is clear that the protection guaranteed under international human rights instruments, Constitution and legislations pertaining to free speech and expression extend to the medium of internet as well. Government should take strong and immediate measures to declare internet as basic right and make it easily accessible to all at all level. Universal access to internet as human right would provide better access to information and make the people more informative and responsible.
(George Cheriyan is director and Aaradhna Gupta is Programme Associate, both work with CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group)
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