"Digital Nagriks" for a Free, Equal, and Inclusive Internet: Our demands from the incoming Union Government

We present a seven-point agenda for political parties running in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, demanding the incoming government to make the protection, preservation, and advancement of digital rights a top governance priority.

24 January, 2024
7 min read

This blogpost and the Digital Rights Manifesto were updated on February 19, 2024. Read the previous version of the Manifesto here.

The 2024 general elections to elect Lok Sabha members are slated to be an event of grandeur. With over 900 million Indian voters geared up to vote a new Union government to power, the focus will soon shift to promises, development agendas, and governance priorities of political parties in the running. In that context, IFF has attempted to list out a seven-point agenda on technology and human rights that can be adopted by electoral candidates and political parties in their party manifestos for the 2024 general and state elections. 

More Indians are online today than ever before. A Hindu report from May 2023 speculates that half the Indian population now has access to the internet. At the outset, the numbers paint a positive picture – the country’s digital divide, a gaping problem that alienates many groups from reaping the benefits of digital technologies recreationally as well as for better quality of life, is seemingly being bridged. The increasing adoption of the internet also signals a continuing belief that it has the potential to make our lives better. But on a closer look, we see that the internet is also being wielded as a tool of arbitrary executive control by our government, which deepens the divide and excludes vulnerable communities. Instances of indefinite and disproportionate internet shutdowns, threats to net neutrality, tech-enabled gender violence – all indicate that while Indians are online, our engagement with the internet is not necessarily meaningful or fructuous. A free, equal and inclusive internet  can only be ensured when the rights of users are written into the law, and our institutions invest their time and resources in building rights-affirming, secure and trustworthy legal mechanisms for us to safely make the most of the internet. 

Sometimes, we find that our government slips up on this legitimate expectation. Their interests may misalign with ours – as can be seen from the wide array of flawed or underdeveloped tech-policy regulatory developments that have been enacted in the last few years. But our demands for rights-centric legislation and good governance must not stop. As "Digital Nagriks", a title endowed upon citizens of a “Digital India” by the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023, we must continue to participate in our democracy and hold our governments accountable for the protection, preservation, and advancement of our constitutionally guaranteed digital rights.

We, at IFF, noted the absence of a clearly articulated message or political charter of demands surrounding the use of digital technologies in India. This seven-point agenda has been created to fill that gap. We attempted a similar exercise in 2019 – where we presented a set of demands and reached out to all political parties and candidates to open a channel of communication. This year, we have streamlined these demands into seven broad themes of governance. 

I. Digital rights are human rights

The incoming government must support and advocate for protecting and expanding our fundamental human rights in the realm of digital technologies, with a focus on constitutional principles of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity. With growing digitisation and more Indians coming online, the human rights impact of digital technologies has become a core governance issue, which must be prioritised through executive and legislative action. The government must apply systemic solutions to systemic problems such as cybersecurity threats and online harms, while preserving our security through the adoption of privacy-protecting technologies. The protection and advancement of the digital rights of individuals and collectives must become a governance priority. 

II. Technology should lead to inclusion and equality

The incoming government must ensure greater access to the internet and to digital technologies – access that is physical, educational, monetary, intersectional, and equitable. Internet penetration must increase in remote corners of the country to secure the right of every Indian to communicate, send, and receive information and to bridge the digital divide. No person should be excluded from government services, benefits, or entitlements due to the adoption of e-governance services or digitisation, and the delivery of welfare services must not be impeded due to technical failures, internet suspensions, or inaccessibility. The government should empower those from backgrounds and identities who can use technology for a better, more productive life across boundaries of religion, caste and gender. 

III. Free speech must be respected

The growing presence of Indians in online spaces reinforces the need to protect their freedom of speech and expression as well as their right to receive information online. Reinterpretation or replacement of antiquated laws must not be employed as a means to suppress dissenting and vulnerable voices and to solidify disproportionate power with the Executive. While an online attack on the freedoms and rights of others must be countered with effective measures, the incoming government must ensure that legitimate, constitutional rights are protected and promoted. Neither the government nor the platforms can become sole arbiters of online free speech, in the absence of judicial safeguards. The government must oppose the disproportionate, unreasoned, and non-transparent suspension of the internet. India’s troublesome performance in globally renowned indexes measuring internet shutdowns and online speech censorship is a cause for alarm, and the government must safeguard fundamental and human rights in online domains, preventing any authoritarian abuse of power.

IV. Upholding informational privacy

Protection of privacy, as articulated by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court in the two Puttaswamy v. Union of India judgments (2017 and 2019), is indispensable to a digital India. To ensure that the informational privacy of all Indians is protected, the incoming government must commit to building a rights-affirming digital environment with adequate channels for grievance redress. The data protection legislation must be amended to meet the standards of privacy and principles of proportionality set out by the Supreme Court in the Puttaswamy judgments. The government must implement robust data processing, storage and sharing mechanisms in line with internationally accepted principles. At the same time, the right to information and the RTI Act, which is a significant pillar of democratic governance, must not be diluted.

V. Checks on surveillance

In order to preserve the privacy, dignity, and freedom of movement of Indian citizens, there is a critical need to establish proper safeguards and oversight over digital surveillance by the Executive. Legal safeguards and processes with adequate checks and balances must be created for surveillance by police and intelligence agencies, to prevent misuse and targeted or mass surveillance of individuals. The incoming government must introduce long overdue reform in surveillance practices and powers of the Executive, with sufficient legislative and judicial oversight on any interception of digital devices, including computer access and phone tapping. The role of intrusive, emerging technological use-cases such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition in surveillance must be closely reevaluated, and privacy impact assessments conducted before deploying such tools. The government must protect and encourage the adoption of encryption technologies like end-to-end encryption, and eliminate the use of spyware as a tool for surveillance. 

VI. Making consumer facing digital platforms accountable

India is a valuable market for companies globally, with Indians forming a bulk of their user base. In exchange for establishing a presence on and using the services of these platforms, users are unknowingly relinquishing effective control over how they interact with technology. Legislative, regulatory, and policy measures are needed to effectively ensure an equitable balance of company interests and individual rights, in a way that the former respects the fundamental right to free speech and privacy. Technology companies as well as the government must strive to serve the public’s best interests instead of protecting company profits. To that end, the incoming government must ensure that companies adopt measures for greater transparency and accountability through tools such as a Human Rights Impact Assessment. 

VII. Ensuring legitimate use of generative AI

The legitimate use of generative AI for reasons such as translation or authorised dubbing of audio-video content to reach a broader audience can achieve positive outcomes. However, the unauthorised use of such technology for nefarious use to create manipulated media can have devastating consequences, including financial fraud, defamation, impersonation, etc. In light of the existing limitations of detection tools and redressal capabilities of platforms and companies, the incoming government must commit to not creating and/or using manipulated media for nefarious reasons as government actors and otherwise. The government must create solutions at the legal, policy, and societal levels for such emerging technologies in a way that balances the right to online free legitimate and legal speech and the right to receive information. In addition to working towards building technical capacity within the government and its allied organisations to tackle these emerging threats, media literacy should be a priority both in the digital and physical space, to raise awareness about the existence of and threats posed by these technologies.

As always, we can’t do this without you

Here’s how you can help:

  1. Add to the agenda: We call on the IFF community and all those who are passionate about digital rights and policy in India to send us inputs, suggestions or feedback on our Digital Rights Manifesto. What is a digital rights issue that would make you cast your vote in favour of a candidate? What area or theme would you want the incoming government to focus on? Do you have different expectations or perspectives as a stakeholder in the tech-policy space? Tell us today! Write us an email at [email protected] or leave a message via any of our social media channels (linked at the bottom of this page). 
  2. Put us in touch with an electoral candidate or party: You can help by connecting or introducing us to electoral candidates, political parties, or anyone seeking legislative office through the next general and state elections. Please write to us at [email protected].
  3. Support IFF: As we dial up our advocacy efforts to uphold the demands of "Digital Nagriks" this election season, we take this opportunity to thank IFF's community of supporters, volunteers, donors and members. We are able to continue doing what we love, fighting for your rights only because of your unending affection and support. If you want to be a part of our journey, donate to us or sign up to become a member today!

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