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Home > Lifestyle News > Culture News > Article > International Day of Democracy Why Indians should be concerned about online surveillance and privacy

International Day of Democracy: Why Indians should be concerned about online surveillance and privacy

Updated on: 28 October,2022 01:23 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Nascimento Pinto |

On International Day of Democracy 2021, an internet policy expert explains the threat to online free speech and privacy in India. India was recently marked ‘partly free’ on the ‘Freedom in the World’ list, down from ‘free’ earlier. It was similarly rated 'partly free' for internet freedom, an important indicator of the health of democracies

International Day of Democracy: Why Indians should be concerned about online surveillance and privacy

India was recently rated 'partly free' for internet freedom on the ‘Freedom in the World’ list. Image for representational purpose only. Photo: istock

The widely accepted meaning of the word democracy is a government elected by the people, of the people and for the people. India is considered the largest democracy in the world. Earlier in the year, however, the country was marked down to ‘partly free’ in the ‘Freedom in the World’ index, where research and advocacy not-for-profit organisation, Freedom House rates political rights and civil liberties around the world. In terms of ‘freedom on the net’, which is an important contemporary indicator of the health of democracies, India was similarly found to be ‘partly free’.

Recent revelations about surveillance and hacking of devices with Pegasus spyware as well as the WhatsApp-Government of India (GoI) tussle over user privacy show that there are curbs to the online independence of Indian citizens. 

Every year, the world celebrates International Day of Democracy on September 15. Mid-day spoke to Anushka Jain, associate counsel (surveillance & transparency) with the advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, to understand how online surveillance and compromised privacy can affect the future of democracy in India.

Here are edited excerpts: 

According to the ‘Freedom in the World’ report, India is ‘partly free’ in the global space and internet freedom ecosystem, a drop from ‘free’ in the past. What are likely the main reasons for this change?

The Freedom in the World report makes its assessment on the basis of the ongoing situation of political rights and civil liberties in the country. The drop in India's status from free to partly free denotes that the ongoing assault on fundamental rights in the country has not gone unnoticed globally. This status change highlights the deteriorating condition of civil liberties in India, as can be seen from the government response to protests, which includes but is not limited to internet shutdowns, use of surveillance technology on citizens, criminal action against those exercising their right to free speech on the internet and the targeting of journalists, civic space defenders and human rights activists. 

In light of the recent findings about the use of Pegasus spyware here, where does India stand on the right to privacy and free speech today?

The Pegasus revelations are extremely worrying in the sense that there isn't any information as to what has happened, who did it and what the next steps are. If the illegal surveillance was carried out by the government, then the citizens deserve transparency and accountability from them. However, if it was a foreign power targeting Indian citizens, then also we need the government to step up and showcase the actions it is taking to respond to this specific violation as well as to ensure such violations do not take place in the future. However, neither of those actions have been taken which leaves Indians vulnerable. The impact on free speech and privacy is catastrophic since use of such surveillance technology violates the right to privacy and leads to an eventual chilling effect on free speech.  

To ensure threats to freedom of speech are ineffective, citizens should educate themselves on issues of free speech and engage with civil society organisations as well as government authorities, says policy counsel Anushka Jain. Photo Courtesy: Anushka Jain

Currently, what are India's laws against online surveillance?

India does not have any laws relating to online surveillance. We only have provisions related to targeted interception of calls, under the Indian Telegraph Act, and data, under the Information Technology Act. Spyware such as Pegasus relates to hacking of devices, which is a criminal offence in India. 

Why should the average citizen be concerned about surveillance and user privacy?

The average user should be concerned about surveillance and privacy because allowing curbs on the privacy of one individual leads us onto a slippery slope wherein justifications for curbing the privacy of a larger group of people then start to look valid. The leap from targeted to mass surveillance of entire populations is one against which the citizens of this country should remain vigilant.

The surveillance and compromised user privacy was aimed at journalists, among others. What are your observations on how the internet is being used to curtail the effectiveness of the fourth estate?

Use of such surveillance technology against journalists leads to a chilling effect on their freedom of speech, which is problematic as it would then result in them being hesitant of being critical of the State. Additionally, it would also jeopardise the personal safety of their sources and thus lead to a loss of credibility. However, it is not just the use of such technology which is affecting the fourth estate, the new IT Rules 2021 also place new curbs on Digital News Media platforms. Lastly, internet shutdowns, which are the most rampant in India, affect journalists and their ability to report from areas of tension such as Jammu and Kashmir.  

What is urgently needed in terms of protections for people using the internet to voice their concerns about the establishment and policies?

The fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression protects the right of all Indian citizens to hold and express their opinions freely. However, there are multiple curbs being put in place which illegally hamper this right, and such provisions need to be challenged.  

How can the threats to freedom of speech and democracy be tackled not only by internet activists but also by common people? What should individuals be aware about and what steps can they take?

To ensure that threats to freedom of speech are ineffective, citizens should continue to educate themselves on issues of free speech and engage with civil society organisations as well as government authorities. Demanding transparency and accountability from the government through the Right to Information Act is another way that citizens can work towards protecting our democracy. 

Also Read: What Covid-19 reaching an endemic stage in India would really mean

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