Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for April 2023

For the month of April, 2023, we have filed 16 Right to Information (“RTI”) requests and 03 First Appeals.

06 May, 2023
6 min read

tl;dr

For the month of April, 2023, we have filed 16 Right to Information (“RTI”) requests and 03 First Appeals. We received 10 responses, including 04 from the Department of Electronics and Information Technology, 01 from the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and 01 from the Press Information Bureau.

Why should you care?

The RTI Act, 2005 ("the Act") was enacted to promote transparency and accountability in the operations of all public authorities by granting citizens access to information held by public authorities. Facilitating such access is necessary to prevent public authorities acting in private interests from undermining democratic processes. Citizens are at a disadvantage when it comes to preventing abuse of power by public officials when transparency is not upheld as a value of public decision-making.

As we previously discovered through responses to our RTI applications, various government processes and programs frequently continue with little or no transparency. This occurs despite the Act's mandate to publish and disclose information to citizens on a proactive basis.

As a result, the Act is one of the most important tools at the public's disposal for engaging with the government and demanding transparency and accountability from it. We use the Act to obtain information about the government's various ongoing policies and projects.

Data Protection and Privacy

One of our key areas of work is ensuring that public authorities respect data privacy and engage in practices that will ensure our fundamental right to privacy. 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. In the month of April, 2023, we filed these RTI requests:

  1. With the Home Department, the Government of Maharashtra seeking information on the use of facial recognition technology to identify frequent visitors to the Mantralaya.
  2. With the Transport Commissionerate, the Government of Kerala seeking information on the use of 726 artificial intelligence cameras under the ‘Safe Kerala’ project, to check traffic violations.
  3. With the Commissioner & Director of School Education, the Government of Telangana seeking information on the introduction of facial recognition technology to manage teachers’ attendance in state-run schools.
  4. With the Directorate of Transport, the Government of Goa seeking information on whether the transport authority plans to introduce facial recognition technology during the conduct of a learner’s license test.
  5. With the Home Department, the Government of Goa seeking information on the surveillance system commissioned with 382 cameras under the Goa Intelligent City Management System, part of the Government of Goa SPV, ‘Imagine Panaji Smart City Development Limited’, in the city of Panaji.
  6. With the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Delhi Police, and the Lieutenant Governor’s Secretariat seeking information on the artificial intelligence-driven and technology-backed safety policing under the ‘Safe Delhi’ project, wherein CCTV cameras and facial recognition technology would be used.

For more information on the use of facial recognition technology and how it increases mass surveillance, visit IFF’s Project Panoptic.

We received the following replies:

  1. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, in their response received on April 17, 2023, said that the ‘Go Home and Reunite’ (“GHAR”) portal set up under the Protocol for Restoration and Repatriation of Child (information sought by application dated March 20, 2023) is used to digitally track and monitor children in the juvenile justice system who are to be repatriated to another district/state. The data collected, per the RTI response, is stored in an internal, secured cloud of the NIC.
  2. The Delhi Police, in their response dated April 17, 2023 stated that the requisite information about the technology-backed forensic audit (information sought by application transferred on March 27, 2023) did not pertain to their unit and disposed of our application.
  3. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology, in response to our application dated March 16, 2023, disposed of our request on April 14, 2023 stating that no separate and specific notices had been issued to any service providers, intermediaries, data centres, body corporates and government organisations seeking information on the compliance of direction (iii) of Direction No. 20(3)/2022-cert-in dated April 28, 2022, except the notices issued to Virtual Private Network (“VPN”) service providers.
  4. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology, in response to our application dated March 16, 2023, disposed of our request on April 14, 2023 stating that no separate and specific notices had been issued to any service providers, intermediaries, data centres, body corporates and government organisations seeking information on the compliance of direction (v) of Direction No. 20(3)/2022-cert-in dated April 28, 2022, except the notices issued to VPN service providers.

We also filed a first appeal with the Delhi Police in reply to their RTI response dated April 17, 2023, on the ground that if the information sought with respect to mandatory technology-backed forensic audits of crime scenes for offences punishable for six or more years was not available with the Delhi Police, they should have further transferred it to the concerned authority under Section 6(3) of the Act.

Free Speech and Censorship

Another area of our work is to ensure that internet freedom of speech and expression is protected and that unnecessary censorship does not have a chilling effect on people’s fundamental rights. As a result, we routinely file RTI applications to demand accountability for incidents that may impede free expression on the internet, such as website blocking or internet shutdowns.

We filed RTI requests with:

  1. The Press Information Bureau seeking information on the 17 regional offices of the Fact Check Unit, as mentioned in paragraph 19 of the Thirty-Eighth Report on Action taken by the Government of the Observations/Recommendations of the Committee contained in their Twenty-seventh Report (Seventeenth Lock Sabha) on Ethical Standards in Media Coverage, dated February 09, 2023.
  2. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology and the Reserve Bank of India seeking information on the attempt by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to clamp down on ponzi apps.
  3. The Department of Home Affairs and Justice, the Government of Punjab seeking information on the suspension of internet and telecom services that took place in the State of Punjab.
  4. The Home Department, Haryana, seeking information on the internet shutdown in the Nuh District of Haryana in February, 2023.

We received the following responses to RTI requests filed by us:

  1. The Press Information Bureau, in their response dated April 19, 2023 (application filed on March 30, 2023) replied that the PIB Fact Check Unit is run by officers of the Indian Information Service and is currently comprised of a Joint Director and an Assistant Director. The unit has received 1,18,948 queries since April 02, 2020 and up until April 16, 2023, it had conducted 1,223 fact checked and busted 1,189 cases of fake news.
  2. The Information Technology, Electronics & Communications, Government of Andhra Pradesh in their response dated April 04, 2023 stated that internet suspensions occurring in the State are not under their purview.
  3. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology, in their response to our application dated March 14, 2023, disposed of our request on April 20, 2023, by holding that the Grievance Appellate Committee (“GAC”) established under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 received 42 appeals, disposed of 32 appeals and passed 7 speaking orders. They have not provided any further information sought under Section 8(1)(j) of the Act.
  4. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology, in response to our application dated March 31, 2023, seeking information on the blocking of various Twitter accounts like BBC Punjab in light of the internet shutdowns since March 17, 2023, disposed of our application on April 20, 2023 by stating that due process was followed under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for blocking of access of information by the public) Rules, 2009.

We filed the following First Appeals to responses received:

  1. Against the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to the response received on March 15, 2023 seeking information on the BBC documentary on the Prime Minister, which held that the proceedings for the inter-departmental committee and matters related to the same are confidential and exempt from disclosure under Section 8(1)(a) of the Act. The First Appeal was also dismissed on these grounds.
  2. Against the Department of Electronics & Information Technology against their response seeking information on the GAC which merely held ‘the request has been forwarded to the CPIO’, which is not a substantive response.

Help us help you

If you want us to file an RTI application on an issue involving any current or proposed government program, scheme, or initiative affecting citizens' digital rights, please fill out this blocksurvey form, and we will file an RTI application with the appropriate authorities. Alternatively, you can also write to us at [email protected].

This post has been authored by Policy Intern Anahida Bharadwaj and reviewed by the IFF Policy Team.

Important Documents:

  1. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for March 2023 dated April 07, 2023 (link)
  2. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for February, 2023 dated March 17, 2023 (link)
  3. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for January, 2023, dated February 17, 2023 (link)

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