There’s Been Ups, Downs, and A Lot of Internet Shutdowns— A Quarterly Update April-June 2023

A breakdown of everything we’ve been up to over the past 3 months, sorted into the 4 core themes of internet shutdowns, data protection & privacy, surveillance, & censorship

08 July, 2023
14 min read

Tl;dr

The second quarter of 2023 has been an eventful one for digital rights (and us!). This quarter, we saw long-term projects like PlugTheBreach and our report with Human Rights Watch come to fruition. We also laid the groundwork for new projects to come, such as our strategic litigation efforts to end the imposition of illegal internet shutdowns or the second phase of our collaboration with Tactical Tech in bringing The Glassroom Project to India. The IT Rules were back at it, this time to establish a government-appointed fact-checking unit that can censor online content. New problems also arose, such as the internet shutdown in Manipur, which has now breached the two-month mark.

Internet Shutdowns

Since April 2023, there have been around 30 internet shutdowns. Many of these are issued illegally and do not comply with the guidelines set out by the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India. We are assisting the Foundation for Media Professionals in a case before the Supreme Court seeking compliance with the guidelines. Other work on internet shutdowns include writing letters to government officials seeking compliance with the guidelines whenever a shutdown is imposed, publishing statements, engaging in advocacy, and co-authoring a report with Human Rights Watch on the detrimental impact of internet shutdowns on access to basic rights in “Digital India.”

We assisted FMP in seeking compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines.

Despite detailed guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, 2020, state governments have continued to illegally impose internet shutdowns. IFF provided legal assistance to the Foundation for Media Professionals, one of the original petitioners of the case, to file a miscellaneous application seeking compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines. The Supreme Court of India was pleased to issue notice and has admitted the matter for hearing.

“No Internet Means No Work, No Pay, No Food” Internet Shutdowns Deny Access to Basic Rights in “Digital India” – a report with the Human Rights Watch

We published a joint report with Human Rights Watch that documents the harm caused by internet shutdowns by denying access to basic rights and entitlements to marginalised communities. Watch our launch event which included a panel discussion with Jayshree Bajoria, Tim Engelhardt, Vineet Bhambhu, Rohini Lakshané, and Apar Gupta.

Internet Shutdowns in Punjab

Internet services in Punjab were suspended from March 18, 2023, till March 21, 2023 – and in some districts till March 24, 2023. The state government issued these orders under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety Rules), 2017, which allows the suspension of internet services in situations that pose a threat to public safety or amount to public emergency. We wrote to the Chief Secretary of Punjab urging them to assess the legitimacy of the order and its subsequent extensions. We highlighted our concerns against the backdrop of the Anuradha Bhasin judgement and reiterated that the unsubstantiated reference of a ‘disturbance of peace and public order’ could not outweigh the economic, psychological, social, and journalistic harm caused by the lack of internet access.

Shutdowns in West Bengal and Bihar

Between March 31, 2023 and April 2, 2023, the governments of West Bengal and Bihar imposed internet shutdowns in response to communal violence. Alarmed by the routine use of internet shutdowns, including by impermissible means such as under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), we published a statement condemning this violation of fundamental rights. Additionally, we also wrote a letter to the District Magistrate, Howrah, to express our concern regarding the use of Section 144 of the CrPC rather than the procedure laid down in the Telecom Suspension Rules, 2017, given that the former legislation is in violation of the Supreme Court’s judgement in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, 2020.

Tracking the Internet Shutdown in Manipur

There has been an ongoing internet shutdown in Manipur since May 3, 2023 affecting an estimated 2.7 million people. IFF is deeply troubled by the indefinite character that the Manipur shutdown has acquired and has written to the Chief Secretary of Manipur and other officials three times on the 5 day, 10 days, and 50 days mark. Additionally, we have also issued two statements calling on authorities to comply with Supreme Court of India’s guidelines on internet shutdowns and outlining our concerns regarding the shutdown’s impact on free expression, education, healthcare, and trade. We will continue to track how the situation develops in Manipur.


Data Protection & Privacy

In June 2023, we launched PlugTheBreach, an IFF project that was a year in the making which tracks data breaches in India. Over the next two quarters of the year, with the help of our community, we hope to continue to build and improve this project. This quarter, we continued advocating for better standards of data protection for Indian citizens, with an emphasis on potential privacy violations, particularly in the absence of any data protection legislation.

Launching PlugTheBreach – an IFF Project!

As our lives are increasingly datafied, data breaches are becoming more common and concerning. Despite this, they occur in a legal vacuum — there is no policy for data governance, no data privacy legislation, and no updated cyber security strategy. Instead, when breaches happen, citizens and consumers are often left in the dark. Our latest IFF project, PlugTheBreach tracks such breaches in India in hopes of enhancing accountability and transparency. For the launch, we welcomed 75 participants and had a lively community discussion.

We’re Saying No to the Good Governance Rules, 2023

The Ministry of Electronic & Information Technology released the Aadhaar Authentication for Good Governance (Social Welfare, Innovation, Knowledge) Amendment Rules, 2023, on April 20, 2023, for public consultation. A joint submission with Article 21 Trust, Rethink Aadhaar Campaign, and Access Now, flagged several issues and concluded that the Rules were unconstitutional and hence, should not be adopted.

The Next Time You Fly, Say Goodbye to Your Privacy

The Digi Yatra Scheme allows digital processing of passengers using facial recognition to check the passengers’ identities at the entry checkpoint, entry into security check, self-bag drop, check-in, and aircraft boarding. We wrote a letter to the Secretary, the Ministry of Civil Aviation raising our concerns about the exclusion that may be caused by the Scheme and urging them to immediately cease the DigiYatra scheme in light of its privacy and exclusion concerns.

FRT Here, There, Everywhere, Even in the Polling Booth?

We wrote to the Chief Election Commissioner of India and the Chief Electoral Officer, Karnataka on the use of facial recognition technology for voter verification in Karnataka asking them to cease in light of the potential harm. Fortunately, we received an RTI response stating that the FRT pilot project was not implemented during the recent Karnataka State Election.

The End of VPNs? This is CERT-In-ly Not Good News

On April 28, 2022, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) issued Direction No. 20(3)/2022-CERT-In which were ostensibly aimed to address information security practices, procedures, prevention, response, and reporting of cyber incidents. To mark the first anniversary of the notification of these changes, we analysed responses to two RTI applications filed with CERT-In about these 2022 Directions that could potentially put an end to VPN services.

IFF joins the Global Encryption Coalition

In April, IFF joined the Global Encryption Coalition (GEC) Steering Committee along with Mozilla Corporation and the three founding members the Center for Democracy & Technology, Global Partners Digital, and the Internet Society. The GEC promotes and defends encryption in key countries and multilateral fora where it is under threat. It also supports efforts by companies to offer encrypted services to their users.

Privacy is Supremely on Our Minds

We have begun preparations for our annual flagship event ‘Privacy Supreme’ which  commemorates the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in K.S. Puttaswamy v Union of India that the right to privacy is a fundamental right. On August 24, the judgement’s date, we will celebrate by organising expert conversations about the right to privacy in India from the perspective of digital technologies.


Surveillance

This quarter, we continued to build IFF’s Project Panoptic, a tracker for facial recognition projects in India. We followed up on some of our work from the previous year on surveillance of sanitation workers by municipal corporations. We also poked fun at facial recognition technology’s ability to show up just about anywhere, almost like it was written in the stars.

Updating Project Panoptic

We continued to update our nation-wide facial recognition technology tracker on the Project Panoptic website and have added 44 new entries since April bringing the current total to 169.

Keeping an Eye on Surveillance

In September 2022, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, directed four municipal corporations using GPS tracking devices on sanitation workers to furnish a factual report for them. This was in response to a joint letter signed by 18 organisations and 187 individuals. IFF and the All India Lawyers Association For Justice were co-signatories and had raised concerns about the unconstitutional surveillance of sanitation workers. On March 28, 2023, we sent the municipal corporations follow-up letters inquiring about the status of these factual reports. We also wrote to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi when we heard they had plans to put in place similar surveillance systems for sanitation workers in the national capital.

Status of Policing in India Report

Earlier this year, Common Cause & the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies released their 2023 Status of Policing in India Report – the first of its kind that surveys public opinions on digital surveillance in India. In a blogpost we highlighted some of their noteworthy findings on the prevalence, usage, and public perception of CCTV cameras in urban spaces in India. IFF’s Founding Director Apar Gupta and Policy Counsel Anushka Jain were also acknowledged for their contributions to the report.

Developments in the EU on AI  

As the conversation around artificial intelligence intelligence continues to heat up across the globe, we analysed the European Union’s AI Act and its potential implications for India’s AI governance framework.


Censorship

This quarter, our work on censorship focused on the IT Rules, which were amended (yet again) this year to include a provision to constitute a government-appointed fact-check unit that will have the power to censor online content. We provided legal assistance to Kunal Kamra, a political satirist, and the Association of Indian Magazines to file a challenge to this amendment before the Bombay HC. We also collaborated with Ekō and the India Civil Watch International on a campaign to encourage Meta shareholders to vote yes on a shareholder proposal highlighting Meta’s biased actions in India.

Staying Impolite at FoE Con 2023

To explore the challenges facing free expression in the digital age, FoE Con 2023 brought together some of the most influential voices from the fields of law and journalism. We talked about the portrayal of law in cinema and how to make the Indian legal system more accessible to the public via media. We also talked about how disinformation could be combated by social media companies. All four panel discussions on the IFF YouTube channel now.

We Asked Meta’s Shareholders to Stand Up For Indian Democracy

On May 31, 2023, Meta shareholders voted on Proposal 7 at the company’s Annual General Meeting. The proposal voiced concerns regarding inadequate content moderation and hate speech dissemination. In the run-up, we launched a 6-day joint campaign with Ekō and the India Civil Watch International to raise awareness by highlighting #7ReasonsForProposal7, that is, seven instances where Meta’s actions (or inaction) caused or exacerbated harm. Unfortunately, the proposal did not garner enough support from shareholders. The repercussions of Proposal 7's defeat are far-reaching, but keeping the 2024 general elections in mind, we will continue putting pressure on companies like Meta to safeguard India’s democracy from the misuse of social media platforms.

We Represented Internet Archive in a Defamation Suit

On May 25, 2023, we represented Internet Archive in a defamation suit filed by a member of BJP Jharkhand who has alleged damage to his reputation arising from the contentious two-part BBC documentary title, “India: The Modi Question.” He has sought a permanent injunction against BBC, Internet Archive and other Defendants to cease the publishing of the documentary, and for the passing of a decree of INR 10,00,000 in his favour.

Publishing a Statement on Digital Censorship in Punjab

The aforementioned internet shutdown in Punjab in March 2023 was also accompanied by 120 twitter accounts being suspended/withheld. Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, was invoked, which empowers the Central Government to direct intermediaries (such as Twitter) to block any online information from being publicly viewed. Deeply disturbed by the unconstitutional and disproportionate censorship, IFF issued a statement, wrote a letter to MeitY raising, and filed an RTI application enquiring into MeitY’s compliance with the procedural safeguards laid down in the Blocking Rules, 2009. In its response, MeitY admitted to issuing “various blocking directions” but refused to furnish copies of those directions, the material that led it to issue those directions, and information of the Review Committee’s meetings.

Censorship & Sedition in Manipur

In addition to highlighting the indefinite nature of internet shutdown in Manipur in our statement and the letter, we also noted the unconstitutional nature of the FIR registered for the offence of sedition under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which violates the interim order of the Supreme Court in S.G. Vombatkere v. Union of India, that stayed Section 124-A of the IPC. We further highlighted the news reports of arbitrary online censorship wherein Twitter accounts of local groups were reportedly withheld.

You’ve Got Ban

In efforts to advance transparency, we filed a series of RTI applications with MeitY, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Jammu & Kashmir police to obtain more information about why 14 mobile apps that provided end-to-end encrypted and/or peer-to-peer messaging services were banned in the state in May.

MIB’s Making A List & We’re Checking it Twice

After filing a second appeal, we successfully got the Chief Information Commission to direct the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to provide us with a list of news publishers that MIB has compelled to provide their details under the IT Rules, 2021. In response to the order, MIB furnished a list of 3,101 digital news media publishers and 57 OTT platforms that submitted their details. We have pursued this list since October 2021.

Your Screen is a No Smoking Zone

On May 31st, the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (MoHFW) notified the Cigarettes and other Tobacco Products Amendment Rules, 2023. Rule 11 introduces an obligation on “Over-The-Top” platforms to display anti-tobacco messaging after any content displaying tobacco use. We wrote to the MoHFW raising our concerns surrounding the excessive nature of the Amendment Rules, 2023, the lack of consultation with relevant stakeholders, and their effect on free speech, artistic expression, as well as the right to receive information.

The IT Rules

On March 1, 2023, the Grievance Appellate Committees constituted under Rule 3A of the notified Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2022,  became functional. On April 1, 2023, which marked one month of the GAC’s functioning, we wrote to the chairpersons of the three grievance appellate committees established under the IT Amendment Rules, 2022, to seek clarity on the GACs’ establishment and functioning. After a wait of nearly two months and a first appeal, the responses we received brought forth several concerns about the lack of transparency in the functioning of the GACs and the urgent need for increased accountability to users.

The IT Rules, Reloaded

On April 6, 2023, MeitY notified the IT Amendment Rules, 2023. In addition to amendments relating to online gaming, the IT Amendment Rules, 2023, create a government-appointed fact-check unit that can identify and take down online content as ‘fake, false, or misleading’. Very, very bad news for the fundamental right to free expression, journalistic freedom, and the right to receive information. Read our statement,  brief, and op-eds by IFF staffers. When the amendments were notified on April 6, our legal team worked over the Easter weekend to assist on filing a challenge on behalf of political commentator and satirist, Kunal Kamra, by the morning of Monday, April 10, and have the matter listed for hearing on Tuesday, April 11. When the matter came up for hearing before the Bombay HC, the Court ordered MeitY to submit a response explaining why the amendments should not be stayed. On April 27, because of these proceedings, the Union Government gave its undertaking to the Bombay HC that the fact-checking unit would not be constituted until July. This is a big victory that would not be possible without the consistent support of our community. We’re also grateful to the incredible legal team in Bombay, with whom we collaborated on this litigation.

We are also providing legal assistance to the Association of Indian Magazines in their challenge to the IT Amendment Rules, 2023.

We Got Fact-Checked & Did Some Fact-Checking Ourselves

We received statistics on the Press Information Bureus’s functioning as a fact-checker in an RTI response, wrote and published an analysis on the basis of this response, got “fact-checked” on Twitter by the PIB itself, published a response and wrote to the PIB explaining why our analysis is accurate.


Everything Else

In addition to all of our work on internet shutdowns, privacy, surveillance, and censorship, some more of our work:

Platforms, Payments, & NREGA

In March 2023, workers launched a 100 day dharna at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to protest changes to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the use of the National Mobile Monitoring System, and the difficulties of the Aadhaar based payment system. We visited Jantar Mantar to speak to protestors and hosted a Twitter Space with Rajendran Narayan, Nikhil Dey, Ashish Ranjan, and Rakshita Swamy, moderated by Anushka Jain to discuss these issues.

We Reviewed How Your Digital Rights Did this Budget Session

The Budget Session 2023 was adjourned sine die on April 06, 2023, in both Houses of Parliament amidst protests from the Opposition and treasury benches. In a blogpost, we reviewed the disruptions during the Session and analysed how the Parliament fared with respect to digital rights.

Talked to Gig Workers at Blinkit About Their Strike

In April, several delivery “partners” at Blinkit went on strike in response to changes to their pay structure. We visited a protest site to find out more.

Unpacking ONDC

We published a short video on the ‘Open Network for Digital Commerce’ (ONDC) which is a government backed, network-centric, technology infrastructure. We go over what the ONDC is, how it works, what the stated promises and potential challenges are, especially regarding accountability, data safety, and the ability to address market issues.

Published a Brief on Telcos’ Demand for a ‘Fair Share’

Demands for the regulation of Over-The-Top (“OTT”) communication services (such as WhatsApp and Telegram) have been increasing amongst telecommunications service providers  globally for several years. These demands have been justified by stating that similar rules must be applied for offering similar services (for eg. voice calling or messaging) by different service providers. We trace these arguments in the Indian and international context in our public brief, in an effort to analyse the increasing demands for regulation of OTT services and also break down the irrational demand for a "fair share" of the “stolen” profits from OTT services.

Bringing the Glass Room Exhibition to Delhi with Khoj

From July 20, 2023 to July 30, 2023 we’re going to be exhibiting Tactical Tech’s Glass Room: Misinformation Edition at Khoj Studios in New Delhi and we couldn’t be more excited! Since 2016, The Glass Room has run award-winning exhibitions in Berlin, London, New York, and San Francisco. The Glass Room conveys critical views on the technologies that surround us, examines their impacts and helps visitors explore practical solutions to mitigate them. More details to follow!


Operations, Updated!

Operationally, this has been an exciting quarter for IFF, with a few exciting updates for our website and for fundraising!

Website Makeover

If you’ve clicked on any of these links or visited our website recently (pls) you may have noticed that we’re in the process of making the website better navigable, more accessible, and cuter! Check out the new website, and tell us how we can do better, reach out to [email protected] and let’s talk!

Fundraising and Regulatory Compliance

From April 2023 till June 2023, we have raised a total of INR 13,03,123 from one-time and recurring donations. This includes the funds we raised through a fundraiser we hosted with the fantastic folks of r/India through which we were able to raise INR 1,91,510 and the final installment of our grant from UNESCO. Our expenses in that same period have been INR 14,95,603. We also recently launched new membership tiers, with memberships ranging from INR 100 per month to INR 10,000.

Merch, Merch, Merch

We have had an exciting refresh to our merchandise in the works for a while, we’re excited to let you know that the launch of new merchandise, designed by five incredibly talented artists, is coming very, very soon!




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