A new research report reveals that the rise of digital authoritarianism has led to a decline in internet freedom for the 8th consecutive year.
Freedom House – a Washington-based independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world – has released its “Freedom on the Net 2018” report.
Out of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net, 26 experienced a deterioration in internet freedom. Almost half of all declines were related to elections.
The report says that the government has indicated it is looking into regulating social media platforms ahead of the 2019 general / Lok Sabha election. With internet freedom score of 43 out of 100, India falls in the category of “partly free” country.
Governments around the world are tightening control over citizens’ data and using claims of “fake news” to suppress dissent, eroding trust in the internet as well as the foundations of democracy, the report said in its findings.
It adds that internet freedom in India declined in 2018 due to a staggering uptick in local internet shutdowns and the proliferation of misinformation and fake news across social media.
In a positive development, it says, the Supreme Court had ruled in August 2017 that privacy is a fundamental right. However, a new data protection framework released after the coverage period elicited controversy from civil society and tech companies.
Major restrictions on connectivity occurred during the reporting period, as the number of network shutdowns increased substantially. From January to mid-August 2018, local authorities ordered service providers to temporarily shut down internet access in at least 96 reported incidents in 19 states.
The report says that spread of misinformation, rumors, and fake news on social media led to real-world violence. At least 20 people have been killed due to child abduction rumors in the country. WhatsApp was also used to spread misinformation surrounding the May 2018 Karnataka state elections.
Data protection and privacy remain important and timely issues in India, especially with recent reports of security breaches to the government’s controversial biometric Aadhaar project.
The Supreme Court held in August 2017 that privacy is a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution. In July 2018, the Srikrishna committee released a draft privacy bill “Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018,” which will be reviewed by the cabinet and parliament.
Also following the reporting period, in September 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that Aadhaar was constitutional but set limits on the program’s use.