RIGHT TO INTERNET ACCESS SHAPING INDIAN DEMOCRACY
People across the world, irrespective of what sector of society they belong to, use the internet for varied reasons ranging from everyday work to strategic global issues. The spectrum of usage of the internet has floated several pertinent issues, like the future of democracy, issues with privacy, freedom of speech and expression, nature of work, women participation and employment distribution. This in particular has brought the term "Internet studies" into the limelight. Many researchers and scholars are trying to link the internet as an anthropological phenomenon as it has become an indispensable part of human life in the 21st century. The internet has been the epicentre of analysis for many researchers who are eager to acknowledge themselves and explore ways in which people have shaped the internet and its expanding range of implications in different contexts. This paper would try to expand on the thought of internet access is a fundamental right and elaborate its effects on democracy in the Indian context.
What is the Internet ?
To understand how internet access became a fundamental right we need to first understand the history and definition of the internet. Often, there are debates over the history of the internet with regard to the relative contribution of different innovations, groups and organisations (Abbate 1999). History is about to become more textured as and when the internet becomes a major resource. In reality, history is more complex as it has emerged through the interaction of multiple groups, organisations and individuals (Dutton et al. 2012). Thus, from Abbate and Dutton, it can be understood that the internet itself was a result of liberal democratic actions and globalisation. Definition of the internet can be as narrow as Tim Unwin (chapter 25) endorses, as the internet is a set of protocols or a web of networked computers. While others, like Christian Sandvig (Chapter 5) state the internet as an ecology of technical and social innovations within their conceived form of the internet.
In defining the internet, its access is another parameter to be looked upon. Internet access implies access to noteworthy data, best innovation practices, access to credit and finance facilities, promotion of entrepreneurship and upgraded market. With regards to social advantages, internet access helps by encouraging and empowering an upgraded utility estimation of necessities. Internet access can be a catalyst in the process of social improvements and eventually help us to achieve the targets of Sustainable Development Goals, which involve diverse topics such as poverty and hunger, gender equality, education, maternal care, child welfare, the environment, partnership between government and service providers and financial services.
Internet Access a fundamental right
Security and liberty have consistently been at loggerheads. The question in front of the courts in which one is of more importance. Either way, the court goes, it would result in compromises on the other side. The court should ensure that citizens are provided all the rights and freedom to the furthest extent while guaranteeing security simultaneously. The Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression for all citizens is a fundamental right under the Constitution of India listed in article 19 (1) (a). Many times courts have expanded the purview of the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. The recent ruling of the court declared the right to access the internet a fundamental right in harmony with the United Nation's proposal that each nation should make the right to internet access a fundamental right. In the case of Faheema Shirin R.K. vs the State of Kerala, the court stated that freedom of speech and expression via the internet as a medium is an integral part of Article 19 (1) (a), forming a part of the right to Education and privacy under Article 21 with reasonable restrictions under Article 19 (2). In the case of Anuradha Bhasin vs the State of Kerala, the court observed that the Internet is also a very important tool for business and commerce. India is rapidly moving towards its fourth industrial revolution and the globalisation of its economy has caused India to be a major IT hub in the world.
Right to Internet access a separate right under Right to life - Article 21
The Digital India Programme which is a flagship scheme under the Government of India consists of nine pillars, out of which six are directly linked to Internet access. The Central Government in its efforts to create infrastructure has launched BharatNet and in the direction of digital literacy, Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan. These efforts by the government indicate the intention to give importance with regards to internet access to citizens. Now, let us consider two arguments on acknowledging the right to internet access an independent right under Article 21. First is, it should be recognised as an independent right similar to the right to education which is recognised under Article 21A. If we look at the history of how this became a fundamental right, we find that the Directive Principle is used to broaden and give depth to the right. The greatest recipient of this methodology has been Article 21. The same can be done by linking internet access with the Directive Principles under the ambit of "right to life". The second approach would be to designate the right to internet access as a derived right under other fundamental rights, like the Right to Health and Privacy. The secondary right is completely under the protection and limitations of the primary right, however, the secondary right does not mean it is of less significance. Instead, it is just carried out as a connection to the primary right. Thus, it can be said that Article 21 and 19 are completely intertwined with regard to the right to internet access. If it is not recognised as a right, rights would lose the worth and citizens will not have the option to embrace them.
Contradictory actions by the Government
Recently, the Jammu and Kashmir government while responding to a petition filed in the Supreme Court regarding the restoration of 4G services in the state said that internet access is not a fundamental right. This goes against the Kerala High Court’s judgement; the unwillingness or inability of the state to understand the role of internet access playing an important part in the lives of people and the community is portraited. The Supreme Court, upon reviewing this matter after the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was scrapped, claimed that suspension of the internet for an indefinite period is not permissible, and repeated shutdowns are an abuse of power. Many protests against the citizenship law resulted in internet shutdown in Assam, West Bengal, Aligarh and some parts of Delhi.
Longer internet shutdowns are seen in autocracies like China, but a measure like this is hard to digest, considering India is the world's largest ‘democracy’.
In 2019, the Indian government imposed 106 internet shutdowns. It is not just 2019, but in 2018, the count was 134, accounting for 67 per cent of global shutdowns. This makes India a global leader in internet shutdowns beating Pakistan which had 12 internet shutdowns. Restricting internet access is a draconian measure for any country. Its effects are more far-reaching to the lives of people in spheres like communication, trade, education etc.
The government claims, "social unrest" and "terrorist activities" as the causes of the internet shutdown, but these are multi-faceted problems for which internet shutdown is just a temporary solution. An indefinite ban on internet access is not justifiable under the rule of law. It is seen as a violation of freedom of free speech and expression, right to education, right to health, right to free trade and avocation under the constitution of India.
Since the 2014 Lok Sabha election, million more have begun accessing the internet in India. In what manner will this immense expansion in internet access influence the next election? This is still a question. News about the role of the internet across the globe is not heart-warming. 2016 US presidential elections and Brexit referendum are some of the well-cited examples of the internet playing a dubious role. An article in Scientific American claims that the Internet knows you better than your spouse does, sheds light on how the actions we carry out on the internet give advertisers information about our behaviour. A study by David Stilwell and Youyou Wu of the University of Cambridge and Michal Kosinski of Stanford University made an algorithm that can evaluate an individual's personality based on Facebook user's likes. They showcased with data, ten likes could analyse like a co-worker, seventy likes as accurate as a friend and with three hundred likes it was more successful than the spouse. Some effects of this were seen in the Delhi elections where the Aam Admi Party managed to raise a hundred million rupees and reached three and a half million people just before the day of the election through a Facebook platform named Thunderclap, exhorting people to vote. Robert Epstein, a psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology, claims that Google could determine or set the course of the election just based on how it displays its search results. Although there is no evidence of companies doing the aforementioned. Jamie Bartlett in his book believes otherwise. Bartlett proposes that the tech-giants have huge power and responsibility which could influence an individual's behaviour and ultimately political preferences. It is well known that elections are a process that involves a lot of public cooperation, but now the game has been changed by digital marketers. Election Campaigns, which were once a public event, are now micro-managed at individual voter base. Often the internet is criticized for intruding on one’s personal space or infringing the right to privacy and using personal information, however, it is facing another blow with respect to changing the social behaviour of individuals and shaping the form of modern democracy at large.
As Joe Greene says, “The Internet has brought democracy to so many things. It’s about time the internet brought democracy to democracy”. There is no denying that internet access can be a two-sided sword used for both, destructive and constructive purposes but, a ban on internet access is not the solution. There has been a tussle between the Judiciary and the Executive on the matter of the right to internet access being a fundamental right resulting in a lack of clarity to the citizens. It is time the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India, the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution of India decides on the fundamental nature of the Right to internet access which would ultimately shape the form of democracy.
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About the author: Krunal Parekh is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy, Bachelor of Technology in Civil Engineering and a Civil Service aspirant.