Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for February 2022

tl;dr  

For the month of February 2022, IFF has filed 36 RTI requests and 4 first appeals. In response to our Right to Information request on the cap on [dot]in registrations, the National Internet Exchange of India cited national security as a reason and failed to provide any legal basis for their undated notice.

Why should you care?

The Right to Information Act, 2005 (“the Act” or “the RTI Act”) was enacted to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority by ensuring that citizens are able to 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.

As we have discovered previously through responses received on our Right to Information requests, several times various government processes and programs continue with little or no transparency. This comes despite the mandate in the RTI Act, 2005 to proactively publish and disclose information to citizens.

The 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.

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 that the right to privacy is protected. We filed 4 RTI requests and 1 first appeal 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 (FRT). This month, we filed requests with the Education Ministry, Delhi Government on the use of facial recognition technology in conjunction with the CCTVs installed by the Delhi Government in all government schools.

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

Additionally, we also filed requests with:

  1. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on the India Data Accessibility & Use Policy for the list of stakeholders consulted for the preparation of the policy.
  2. The National Health Authority on the integration of public and private entities with the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission.
  3. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on public consultations put out by the Ministry and compliance with PLCP, 2014.

We also filed 1 First Appeal with the Ministry of Home Affairs on their original reply to our Right to Information request on anonymized statistical information related to lawful interception and monitoring being devoid of application of mind.

Free Speech and Censorship

Another focus of our work 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 that may hamper free speech on the internet such as website blocking or internet shutdowns.

In the last month, we have filed 32 RTI requests and 3 first appeals to demand accountability for violations of free speech on the internet with the:

  1. Government of Jammu and Kashmir on the internet shutdown in the state on January 26, 2022.
  2. Ministry of Home Affairs on orders or directions issued by the authority under S.69 of the Information Technology Act, 2005.
  3. Separate RTIs with Governments of Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Odisha, Puducherry, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.

We also filed three first appeals with:

  1. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for their incomplete reply dated 14/01/2022 to our original request requesting information on the list of publishers to whom communications were sent by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
  2. The National Internet Exchange of India for their incomplete reply on our request for information on the legal basis for the undated order on bulk booking of ccTLD [dot]in domains.
  3. The Government of Rajasthan on the response received on their compliance with the directions of the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India.

Significant responses received:

  1. In an incomplete response to our request for information dated 03/01/2022 to the National Internet Exchange of India, where we sought information on the legal basis for the undated order on bulk booking of ccTLD [dot]in domains, and any legal opinion or consultation sought, PIO, NIXI merely stated that Clause 9.19 of the Registry-Registrar Agreement empowers them to amend/ introduce such a policy. Read our blogpost where we explain why assuming powers under Clause 9.19 of the agreement, and the non-response to our queries by the PIO is illegal.
  2. In a response to an application seeking information on whether the State of Rajasthan has complied with directions of the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, the CPIO transferred our queries 1 to 6 to Divisional Commissioners of various divisions in Rajasthan. In response to query number 7, the CPIO replied that the Review Committee constituted under Rule 2(5) of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 consists of Chief Secretary; Secretary, Personnel Affairs; Principal Secretary, Legal Affairs. However, their response to question 8 is incorrect under law. The Ld CPIO has stated the Review Committee does not record findings while evaluating the legality of internet shutdown orders. This cannot be the case as Rule 2(6) of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 mandates the Review Committee to 'record their findings' on whether internet shutdown orders are in accordance with Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act, 1885. We have filed a first appeal asking the government to provide copies of their findings.
  3. We had filed a first appeal on the Ministry of Broadcasting’s initial response where we discovered that despite the stay by Bombay and Madras High Court, more than 2100 digital news publishers furnished information to MIB. In their response, the Ministry has now replied that “the information from the publishers has been received on a voluntary basis.” The FAA response further stated that “the details of entities submitted by the publishers to the Ministry to the Ministry under Rule 18 of IT Rules, 2021 have been submitted in fiduciary capacity and is exempt from disclosure under RTI Act, 2005.”

Media mentions:

  1. The responses received from our request for information from the National Internet Exchange of India were covered by Medianama.

Important Documents:

  1. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information report for January 2022 dated February 02, 2022. (Link)

The post was drafted with the assistance of Gyan Tripathi, a fourth-year law student from Symbiosis International (Deemed University), Pune, and reviewed by IFF staffer Anushka Jain.