2022 Year In Review: Digital transparency provides tangible victories

tl;dr

In 2022, we filed 218 Right to Information (“RTI”) applications and 47 first appeals with various public authorities at the state and union levels. We have also preferred 3 second appeals and appeared before 8 first appellate authorities and the CIC in 7 matters. Through these efforts, we have tried to bring transparency & accountability in the working of every public authority and significant social media intermediary.

Transparency for Accountability

Public consultations are a crucial bedrock of democracy. In 2022, we filed several RTI applications with various ministries asking for more transparency on the policies for consultation and the responses received. More often than not, this data was denied to us. We filed RTI applications with the following authorities for public consultations that they carried out:

No.

Ministry

Consultation

RTI application

Response received


MeitY

Draft India Data Accessibility & Use Policy 2022

RTI application

Response received


MeitY

InDEA 2.0

RTI application

Response received 

(blogpost analysing responses)


Government of Telangana

Agricultural Data Management Policy 2022

RTI application

Response received


MeitY

CERT-in directions

RTI application

Response received


National Health Authority

Draft Data Sharing Guidelines

RTI application

Response received 


Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY)

India Data Accessibility & Use Policy

RTI application

No response


Department of Telecommunications

Draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022

For the working groups, for the responses received during the consultation 

Response on the working groups made for the draft Bill, for the responses received during the consultation 


Department of Telecommunications

Consultation paper for Need for a new legal framework governing Telecommunication in India

RTI application

Response received

10.

Government of Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu Open Data Access Policy

RTI application

Response received

Revealing the responses

Some of our significant responses from this year were:

A. Revealed: Over two thousand news publishers furnished their details to the MIB, despite Bombay HC’s stay [link]

In response to a request for information dated January 3, 2022, MIB confirmed that it had issued the notices. The second notice, dated September 9, 2021, was issued after the Bombay High Court's stay on certain rules of the IT Rules 2021, which gave the MIB authority to regulate digital news media. After filing the first appeal on the Ministry of Broadcasting's initial response, it was discovered that the publishers' information was received voluntarily and was exempt from disclosure under the RTI Act, 2005.

The First Appellate Authority response stated that “the details of entities submitted by the publishers to the Ministry under Rule 18 of IT Rules, 2021 have been submitted in fiduciary capacity and is exempt from disclosure under RTI Act, 2005.”

B. The curious case of (non-)voluntary Aadhaar-ECI linking [link]

After one of our staffers received a call from their Booth Level Offier (BLO) asking them to share their Aadhaar details to enable its linking with their voter ID and media reports from across India, we filed RTI applications with the Chief Electoral Officers (CEOs) of all states and union territories. In our application, we sought queries on whether the linking was mandatory, if voter information would be deleted if not linked, inter alia.

In the interest of increasing public awareness around this issue, we are sharing the RTI responses we received either from the office of District Election Officers or CEOs throughout the country. Several of the RTI responses included the letter dated July 04 in the Annexure, which clarified the voluntary nature of this programme. Furthermore, in a positive turn of events, 6 states/ UT (namely, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, and Jharkhand) in their response to our RTI application reiterated the voluntary nature of this exercise.

C. NIXI’s justification for 2 domains per person? National Security [link]

In response to a request for information dated January 3, 2022 about the legal basis for an undated order on bulk booking of ccTLD [dot]in domains and any legal opinions or consultations sought, the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) only stated that Clause 9.19 of the Registry-Registrar Agreement gave them the power to amend or introduce such a policy. In response to the first appeal of the original response, the FAA stated that the power delegated to the ccTLD Manager under the Registry-Registrar Agreement was used to formulate the policy in question. The FAA also noted that the policy, which has been replaced with an eKYC using Aadhaar notification dated February 24, 2022, is a case-sensitive matter and no further information can be disseminated. The new notification, which can be accessed here, requires the use of Aadhaar-based eKYC. We have previously explained why the decision is troublesome.

D. Rajasthan does not record findings of the Review Committee on internet suspensions [link]

In a response to an application seeking information on whether the State of Rajasthan has complied with directions of the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, the CPIO has replied that the Review Committee constituted under Rule 2(5) of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 consists of Chief Secretary; Secretary, Personnel Affairs; Principal Secretary, Legal Affairs. However, their response to question 8 is incorrect under law. The Ld CPIO has stated the Review Committee does not record findings while evaluating the legality of internet shutdown orders. This cannot be the case as Rule 2(6) of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 mandates the Review Committee to 'record their findings' on whether internet shutdown orders are in accordance with Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act, 1885. We have filed a first appeal asking the government to provide copies of their findings.

E. Delhi Police's claims that FRT is accurate with an 80% match are 100% scary [link]

In response to our RTIs in 2020 and 2021, Delhi Police had earlier refused information on their use of Facial Recognition Technology under Section 8 of the RTI Act. Some information was refused on the ground that it is not available. The Delhi Police also said they have “Nil” information on CCTV cameras! Our first appeals against these responses were rejected, so we filed Second Appeals with the Central Information Commission. They were heard on June 29, 2022, and the Delhi Police were directed to revise their response to the RTI applications in compliance with the RTI Act.

Through replies dated July 25, 2022, the Delhi Police has finally revealed some of the information we had sought in our requests. It has revealed that it treats all results above 80% similarity as positive results.

F. Tamil Nadu Data Policy 2022 framed without an open public consultation [link]

In response to our RTI application on the Tamil Nadu Data Policy 2022, we discovered that the Tamil Nadu eGovernance Agency held stakeholder consultation with academia, industry and government sector stakeholders but not an open public consultation.

G. MeitY doesn’t have a Standard Operating Procedure for issuing blocking orders [link]

In response to our RTI application, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology responded that they had not issued any Standard Operating Procedure which provided guidance and/ or procedure to be followed for issuing orders under Section 69A of the IT Act read with the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009, including for maintenance/ destruction of such orders.

H. Public authority demands one lakh rupees for information under the RTI Act, 2005 [link]

In a response dated May 3, 2022, to our Right to Information application to Varanasi Smart City on the use of facial recognition by them, the PIO requested a sum of one lakh rupees as fees for a hard copy of the documents, without specifying the number of pages the document contains.  This is against the letter and spirit of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (“the Act” or “the RTI Act”) which provides that information be given to the applicants at the cost of Rs 2/- per page.

I. Aarogya Setu has no protocol [link]

We received a response from an RTI application transferred to them from MeitY, stating that the Aarogya Setu Data Access and Knowledge Sharing Protocol, 2020 has been discontinued and therefore, it refers to the Aarogya Setu Privacy Policy on several queries regarding user rights. The surprising part is that the privacy policy itself is anchored on the protocol itself!

Earlier, MeitY had partially responded to the same RTI application stating that the Empowered Group on Technology and Data Management - which notified the protocol in May 2020, was dissolved in September 2020. However, if the Group itself was dissolved in September 2020, it is unclear who was the competent authority granting the protocol extension from May 10, 2021, to May 10, 2022.

In a significant response, MeitY has shared with us the minutes of meetings of the Empowered Group on Technology and Data Management and the order constituting the empowered group.

J. “Human tracking watches” on sanitation workers in Chandigarh [link]

In response to our RTI application on surveillance of sanitation workers in Chandigarh, the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation has shared that they have been using “human tracking watches” on field staff since August 1, 2020, and incur approximately Rs 17.5 lakhs per month on it. We had previously also sent a joint letter on the issue initiated by the All India Lawyers Association For Justice (AILAJ) to express our concerns over these ongoing violations to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis.

K. Mandatory attendance of MG-NREGA workers via the NMMS app [link]

In response to our RTI application with the Ministry of Rural Development on the mandatory use of a mobile application to mark the attendance of MG-NREGA workers, the Ministry shared the order mandating the use of the application. After that, we followed up with another RTI application seeking information on whether any feasibility assessment was carried out or whether any representations against its use have been received by the Ministry.

IFF in CIC

In 2022, we appeared before the Central Information Commission in 7 second appeals:

  1. In her order in the DoT second appeal, IC Vanaja N. Sarna directed the CPIO to “send complete information in the form of copies of such order/judgement/decree received from any competent court (in the form of CD) or the case reference as given earlier for the period till December 2021 within 15 days from the date of receipt of the order.” The Hon’ble IC also warned the CPIO for not attending the CIC hearing.
  2. In her order in the MTNL second appeal, IC Vanaja N. Sarna issued a strict warning to the then CPIO Rahul Chowdhry and the GM BB (P&D) for not providing a correct and complete reply at the relevant time and denying the information.
  3. In June, 5 of our second appeals came up for hearing in the Central Information Commission. One of the appeals pertained to the public consultations invited by MeitY. This information was refused on the ground that the Ministry was not the custodian of any information relating to the internal functioning of the Committee. When the first appeal filed against this response was also rejected, we filed a second appeal with the Central Information Commission. The matter was heard on June 23, 2022, when the CIC directed MeitY to respond to the RTI application afresh after taking certain corrective steps. Read our blogpost for more details on the appeal.

We are very grateful to Shreya Munoth, Partner, Chakravorty, Samson and Munoth; and Adv. Sidharth Nath for appearing on our behalf before the Central Information Commission; and our litigation team Amala Dasarathi, Anandita Mishra, Krishnesh Bapat led by Tanmay Singh for assisting in the matters.

Important documents

  1. Read our transparency reports for 2022. (link)