The pandemic session of parliament is vital for our digital rights. A call to our lawmakers!

As the much awaited Monsoon Session of the Parliament draws near, we put out a list of urgent issues in the digital, and privacy rights domain that need foolproof, and swift redressal.

13 August, 2020
6 min read

tl;dr

The 2020 Parliamentary Budget Session had to be cut short 12 days ahead of schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This meant that a lot of time that would have been dedicated to the discussion of pressing issues was lost. Meanwhile, fresh issues, especially in the domain of digital, and privacy rights have arisen. These problems required urgent parliamentary deliberation and oversight. With the upcoming Monsoon Session offering a glimmer of hope, we urge our Parliamentarians to take note of issues in the domain of data, privacy, and digital rights. Since a truncated session might be on the cards, we identify core issues as ‘prioritization and efficiency’ will be realistically how this session may be structured.

The 2020 Parliamentary Monsoon Session: Lite Version?

‘Better late than never’ is the sentiment as indications emerge that the Monsoon Session of the Parliament for this year may soon be announced. While an official announcement is still awaited, various  news reports over the past few weeks have claimed that parliament might commence around Late August-Early September.

It has been rumoured that to ensure that social distancing protocols are followed, each wing of the Parliament (the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha) might sit for business on alternate days --- with each wing using up halls of both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha to ensure safe social distancing. On the other hand, a similar scheme but with a morning and evening shift instead of alternate days has also been suggested by some sources. Given the backlog of urgent issues the second approach is a more preferable option since the former would amount to half the time for deliberation in comparison. Whatever route is taken, it is obvious that prioritisation of issues, and procedural efficiency may dominate this session. We, sincerely believe that this is possible while maintaining a healthy balance deliberative and considered debate. To aid in this effort we have identified several core digital rights issues which may benefit from parliamentary scrutiny. This is only the first step and we intend to follow this up with correspondence with the treasury and the opposition benches.

Digital, and Privacy Rights: Important Issues and the Way Forward

A lot of developments, which have a direct bearing on every Indian citizen’s digital, data, and privacy rights have shaped up over the past few months. Website blocking, blanket app bans, deployment of intrusive surveillance technologies and continued internet shutdowns are just a few of these issues. Our team has been on its toes to make sure that citizens’ rights are duly respected and protected. To this effect, we have consistently engaged with various government ministries, legislators, civil society organisations, parliamentary committees, and the citizens themselves to vociferously advocate for a more inclusive, and rights-respecting digital ecosystem.

As an organisation that works closely with issues pertaining to digital rights, transparency, innovation, privacy protection, and civil liberties, we have consistently engaged with governmental bodies to brief them about core issues that seek immediate and foolproof redressal. From time to time, we have also come up with and advocated for policy recommendations for these issues. The following table lists the broad issues that we reckon are of utmost importance for discussion in the upcoming parliamentary session along with some broad policy recommendations that should be deliberated upon.

Serial Number

Core Issue

Constituent Issues/Explainers

Demands from the Government/Recommendations/IFF’s Actions

1.

Aarogya Setu being made a pre-condition for access to livelihood, employment and basic needs

a. Aarogya Setu made mandatory for entry to Delhi District Court. [link]

b. Aarogya Setu’s use for air travel.  [link]

c. RWAs and Aarogya Setu: An anti-privacy combination. [link]


a. Make a law as per the right to the privacy judgement to regulate Aarogya Setu emphasising the voluntary and uncoerced usage of the app. [link]


b. Engagement with the parliamentary machinery through correspondence with the Parliamentary Committee on IT with the aim of keeping them updated about current and impending security and privacy issues. [link]

2.

Censorship of innovation through app bans

a. Proposed generalised app ban guidelines. [link]

b. 59 apps banned on June 29 2020. [link]

a. Undertake comprehensive reforms starting with issuance of an SOP as per Supreme Court judgements prior to registration of any cases on social media content.


b. Avoid drastic and patchy measures. Approach the issue with a nuanced plan that involved the Personal Data Protection Bill, NCSS and Competition Act working in tandem. [link]

3.

Unregulated surveillance technologies and absence of safeguards

a. Facial Recognition Technology deployment.  [link]

b. Delhi Police’s use of drones for surveillance.  [link]


c. Surveillance through Call Data Records. [link]

a. Build robust privacy safeguards into laws regulating potentially intrusive technologies and avoid usage of drones for law enforcement. [link]


b. Ensure that the concerns of civil society and the public are duly incorporated en-route to a comprehensive Data Protection Bill, which currently lies with a Joint Parliamentary Committee.  [link]

c. Rethink usage of intrusive technologies like Facial Recognition and develop foresight and safeguards before deployment. [link 1] and [link 2]

4.

Internet shutdowns


a. Internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir. [link 1] and [link 2]

b. Internet shutdowns in the North-East of India. [link]

a. Undertake legal reforms as per the directions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the Anuradha Bhasin case. [link 1] and [link 2]

b. Follow principles of proportionality, absolute necessity and transparency while administering internet shutdowns. [link]

5.

Lack of Internet access

a. Poor Internet access in A&N Islands. [link]

b. Lack of 4G access in remote parts of Odisha. [link]

a. Expand tele-connectivity and 4G internet access on priority in all parts of India. [link]

b. IFF’s  recommendations to TRAI to uphold Net Neutrality, and bolster Internet Access. [link]

6.

Cyber attacks against activists

a. Large scale phishing and malware attacks and vulnerabilities in India. [link]

b. NSO Group comes up with new tools pitched towards governments. [link]

a. Constitute a high level inquiry and make an express statement that this is an illegal act.

b. Expedite the process on the much needed Data Protection Bill. [link]

c. Ensure there is parliamentary dialogue and oversight on such issues so that such threats can be checked in real-time.  [link]

7.

Website blocking

a.  Environmental awareness and activism websites blocked in an act of opaque censorship. [link]

b.  Privacy-friendly search engine DuckDuckGo blocked. [link]

c. Arbitrary blocking of WeTransfer: [link]

d. Whistleblower provides blocking orders for over 4000 websites. [link]


a. Reform the website blocking process specifically focussing on removing the opacity existing in regulation [link]


b. IFF’s recommendations to the Standing Committee on Information Technology to avoid arbitrary website blocking, and internet shutdowns [link]

Janta Parliament Initiative

We definitely realise that legislative deliberation through the various activities of the Parliament is one of the most vital parts of governance and policy making in the country. Therefore, it gives us immense pleasure to be a part of the Janta Parliament initiative where more than 50 civil society organisations and citizens’ campaigns will come together for a 6-day simulated conference to convene a unique citizen driven Parliament. We have contributed to this initiative through substantive inputs towards the summary demands for analysis, demands and recommendations. This is a coordinated effort at setting out a concrete, well-researched and pragmatic agenda to address urgent COVID-19 related policy issues whenever the next parliamentary session takes place. To start off, Janta Parliament is going to hold a press briefing at 1430 hours today (13th August 2020). Therefore, we urge all media organisations to attend and be part of this unique and much needed initiative.

In conclusion, we really hope that this Independence Day our parliamentarians pledge to make the best use of the parliament to discuss and resolve urgent issues from all sectors including digital rights, and privacy during the upcoming session. This is very important because legislators are our first line of defence against breaches of rights and their diligence is essential to deepening the sense of democracy in the country.  We also hope that consensus can be reached on the arrangements and starting date of the monsoon session without any further delay, and that instead of a truncated session, a fully functional and efficient session can be held.

1. You can read more on Jan Sarokar’s Janta Parliament initiative, and participation here. [link]

2. The Facebook event page for Janta Parliament (August 16 to August 21). [link]

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