Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for December, 2020

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tl;dr

In the month of December, 2020, we have filed upto 24 Right to Information (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.

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 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 and provide them with more context for public awareness around them. In the month of December, we have up till now filed 24 RTI requests with authorities at the Central and State level, both electronically and through physical filing on the various issues on which we engage with the government.

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 19 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 to increase transparency around these highly invasive systems. This month, we filed requests with:

  1. The Varanasi Development Authority,
  2. The Varanasi Nagar Nigam,
  3. The Central Board of Secondary Education,
  4. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology,
  5. The Punjab Police,
  6. The Hyderabad Police,
  7. The Surat Police,
  8. The Tamil Nadu Police,
  9. The Education Department, Delhi Government,
  10. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI),
  11. The Telangana State Council of Higher Education (TSCHE) &
  12. The School Education Department of the Gujarat Government.

Additionally we also filed requests with:

  1. The UIDAI on the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 and the Aadhaar Authentication for Good Governance (Social Welfare, Innovation, Knowledge) Rules, 2020.
  2. The Indian Council of Medical Research on the reported direction of Aadhaar being mandatory for COVID-19 testing.
  3. The Department of Health & Family Welfare on the reported direction of Aadhaar being mandatory for COVID-19 testing.
  4. The UIDAI on the reported direction of Aadhaar being mandatory for COVID-19 testing.
  5. Dr. R. M. L. Hospital, New Delhi on the reported direction of Aadhaar card being mandatory for COVID-19 testing.
  6. The National Health Authority on their Health ID scheme.
  7. The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation following reports that they used data collected by them to send targeted emails to individuals with a specific surname on the ongoing Farmer’s Protests.

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 month of December, we have up till now filed 5 RTI requests to demand accountability for violations of free speech on the internet with:

  1. The Delhi Police on the reported suspension of Telecom Services around the Delhi and Haryana borders due to the ongoing Farmer’s Protests.
  2. The Home Department of the Haryana Government on the reported suspension of Telecom Services around the Delhi and Haryana borders due to the ongoing Farmer’s Protests.
  3. The Ministry of Home Affairs on the reported suspension of Telecom Services around the Delhi and Haryana borders due to the ongoing Farmer’s Protests.
  4. The Home Department of the Gujarat Government on whether they have complied with the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India’s decision in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India (2020 SCC OnLine SC 25).
  5. The Ministry of Railways on reports that RailWire has blocked certain websites including www.duckduckgo.com and www.reddit.com.

One of our main requests in the instances of internet shutdowns and suspension of telecom services is to ask for a copy of the order through which such shutdowns or suspensions take place. Publication of internet shutdown orders and proper record-keeping is essential for two reasons. First, without access to internet shutdown orders, citizens cannot exercise their fundamental right to seek judicial review of arbitrary or disproportionate restrictions on internet access. Second, internet shutdowns cause huge economic losses and maintaining a consolidated record of all internet shutdowns imposed at the state and central level is necessary for evidence based policy reform.

Without official publication of orders, the only source of information about internet shutdowns in different parts of the country is media reports. However, the figures derived based on media reports do not represent the full scale of the problem and may fail to include shutdowns which are shorter in duration or localised in small towns and villages.

Specifically, in paragraph 96 of the decision in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India (2020 SCC OnLine SC 25), the Supreme Court held that all internet shutdown orders must be proactively published by the government.

“It must be noted that although the Suspension Rules does not provide for publication or notification of the orders, a settled principle of law, and of natural justice, is that an order, particularly one that affects lives, liberty and property of people, must be made available …. We are therefore required to read in the requirement of ensuring that all the orders passed under the Suspension Rules are made freely available, through some suitable mechanism. ”

Our work is ongoing

This is the first in a new monthly series that we plan to publish to ensure that our transparency work can be used by others as well to demand accountability from public authorities as well as to create public awareness about how the RTI Act, 2005 can be used as a tool in the democratic process.

Important Documents

  1. Internal govt documents provide insight into the creation and expansion of Aarogya Setu dated December 3, 2020 (link)
  2. A look at Aarogya Setu through the Right to Information lens dated May, 27, 2020 (link)


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