Since our last report for the month of March, IFF has filed 7 RTI requests. Here, we give you an overview of the requests filed and why demanding transparency and accountability from Government authorities is one of the key elements in our fight to protect digital rights. We also highlight how our demands for transparency have been affected by the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why is transparency important?
The Right to Information Act, 2005 was enacted to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority by ensuring that citizens are able secure access to information under the control of public authorities. Facilitating such access is necessary to ensure that democratic processes are not subverted by public authorities acting under private interests. Where transparency is not upheld as a value of public decision-making, citizens are at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping a check on abuse of power by the public authorities.
The Right to Information (RTI) Act is thus one of the most important tools at the disposal of the public to engage with, and demand transparency and accountability from, the Government. We use the Act to routinely extract information about various ongoing policies and projects that the Government launches. In the month of April, we have up till now filed 7 RTI requests electronically with authorities at the Central level, concerning the various issues on which we engage with the Government.
Note: Number of RTIs are calculated from the date of the previous report. While we try to make this a monthly report, some RTI requests from the previous month that were filed after that month's report may be included in the present report.
Data Protection and Privacy
One of our key areas of work is ensuring that public authorities respect data privacy and engage in practices which will ensure that the right to privacy is protected. We filed 6 RTI requests with various authorities this month to ask for information pertaining to newly introduced projects which affect the data privacy of Indian citizens.
Under IFF’s Project Panoptic, we routinely file RTI requests with various public authorities after we come across news reports that they are developing or using facial recognition technology. This month, we filed requests with:
- The Unique Identification Authority of India on their plans for a ‘touchless’ vaccination process, with Aadhaar-based facial recognition.
- The National Health Authority on their plans for a ‘touchless’ vaccination process, with Aadhaar-based facial recognition.
- The Airports Authority of India on their use of facial recognition technology at the Varanasi Airport.
- The Airports Authority of India on their use of facial recognition technology at the Vijayawada Airport.
- The Airports Authority of India on their use of facial recognition technology at the Pune Airport.
Additionally we also filed requests with:
- The Department of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare on the MoU with Microsoft for a pilot project in 100 villages of 6 states.
Free Speech and Censorship
Our other main focus is to ensure that freedom of speech and expression on the internet is protected and that unnecessary censorship does not lead to a chilling effect on people’s fundamental rights. For this, we routinely file RTI requests to demand accountability for instances which may hamper free speech on the internet such as website blocking or internet shutdowns.
In the last month, we have filed 1 RTI request to demand accountability for violations of free speech on the internet with:
- The Department of Electronics & Information Technology on a news report titled, “Twitter removes over 50 posts on govt. orders; majority related to COVID-19," published in The Hindu dated April 25, 2021.
Transparency has taken a hit during the lockdown
Over the last month, our efforts at demanding transparency have de-accelerated considerably. This is due to our inability to safely file RTI requests physically. Only the Central Government and certain State Governments have a dedicated online portal for filing RTI requests. For most other State authorities across the country, RTI requests still have to be filed physically. The lack of an online RTI portal creates considerable hurdles to demanding transparency in situations like the current one wherein physical filing has become impossible due to the ongoing pandemic.
- Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for March, 2021 dated April 6, 2021 (link)
- Response received from MeitY’s CPIO pursuant to the CIC hearing on March 25, 2021 dated April 13, 2021 (link)
- Without prejudice: The least the government can do is proactively publish judicial orders for website blocking dated April 21, 2021 (link)