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Internet in the Age of Mass-Surveillance: The Domestic Dimension

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In the wake of the shocking revelations about the covert cyber-surveillance programme PRISM, run by the National Security Agency of the United States, the time is ripe for an evaluation of the current debates on digital rights and privacy and internet governance in India.

Aasim Khan (aasim.khan@kcl.ac.uk) is a PhD Canditate at India Institute, King's College London, London.
Nishant Kumar (nishant.kumar@kcl.ac.uk) is a PhD Canditate at  India Institute, King's College London, London.

In what can only be summarised as an irony, a majority of Indians avoided becoming the victims of the United States cyber-surveillance programme PRISM.[i] Not because they had kept themselves well-guarded against any possible breach of their privacy, but simply because they had not yet had a chance to be online. Given that most Indians still have no access to a computer, let alone an email address or a profile on Facebook or Twitter, their very offline-ness ensured that their privacy was unharmed by covert programmes run by the world’s most powerful surveillance agency. But surely this is no consolation; neither for the state nor for the citizens of India.

The revelations about industrial scale international cyber-espionage by the American National Security Agency, first made public by the Guardian newspaper and now being followed up in the US by various civil liberties groups, have finally started a global conversation on digital rights and privacy. As a result these issues, long considered “first-world problems”, are now increasingly visible in the common lexicon of  netizens, a majority of whom now reside outside Europe and America. While it might still be many years before these issues gain any traction in India’s mainstream electoral politics, as they already have in many European countries,[ii] the time is ripe for an  evaluation of the contours and drift of the current debates on internet and its governance in the country. And not in the least because these revelations, instead of promoting a more open society, could end up harming the very freedoms that Snowden apparently wants to promote.

Governments, particularly those antagonised in other contexts, are  prone to see communications issues in terms of sovereignty, and the recent revelations might further strengthen their beliefs. If the initial response of the world’s leaders is anything to go by, then the threat of “Balkanisation of the internet” is becoming a very real possibility. One has to wait and watch how these reactions play out in the long term, but recent history offers a lesson about how the rights of the ordinary citizens might already be at risk in what might soon turn into the next round of a long running geopolitical battle.

New World Order: Then and Now

Just a few decades ago, many poorer third world states came together to demand a fairer redistribution of information and communications resources. In the late 1970s, the demand for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) became a rallying cry for many leaders in Asia and Africa. With the advent of “space- age” and related “global” technologies, communications enthusiasts in the developed world promised to shrink the planet into “one world”. Unsurprisingly such claims unnerved many of the leaders of newly independent nations who saw it as an “invasion from the skies". Subsequent years saw diplomatic sparring on an unprecedented scale that lasted for well over a decade.

If today the contention is about some states having more control over the internet’s resources, in the 1970s the concern was about who should have the rights to the orbits and radio frequencies used by satellites moving in outer space. If today  countries like India are demanding a more “symmetrical” distribution of data servers and a greater say in the governing bodies of the network, the NWICO debates saw cries of “neo-colonialism” via direct satellite broadcasting that promoted “one way flow of information” into the poorer parts of the world.

But very often in the heady geopolitics of communications, the voice of the common citizen remained unheard. While demanding a fairer international order brought a sense of solidarity among the third world states, many of their leaders often ruthlessly suppressed questions about access to communications within their own society. Today, as the revelations of the US cyber-surveillance programmes become apparent, we are witnessing the emergence of NWICO 2.0. Hence, it is imperative that any analysis must include an evaluation of the domestic dimension of the international strategies being adopted by various states, particularly in countries like India which are witnessing a communications revolution.

How (not) to Govern the Internet?

Interestingly India was an active participant in the original NWICO debates, and as a new contest over global communications unfolds, it is bound to emerge as a key actor. But little is understood about the domestic context that shapes its international agenda. Neither the “libertarian” nor the “authoritarian” model captures the complexity of the current domestic discourse in the Indian society;[iii] such labels seem quite inadequate to represent the panoply of worldviews that are held by various stakeholders within India.  The first task then would be to map the contours of the domestic debate that might explain the agenda of one of the world’s rising “internet powers”.

To be sure, talking of domestic political and policy visions might seem farcical given the constant blurring of the line between policy, regulation and absolute government control in India. In terms of policy there is hardly any transparency and the real intentions are often hard to read. Just to take one example, it is one thing to create an agency like Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), which has powers to guard the domestic network, but it is another thing to also give it powers to decide upon and remove content without even informing the creators of the blocked website. The checks and balances associated with it are not clear and nor are the processes which have lead to the creation of such an agency by the state.

In democracies, it follows that citizens must guard against violation of their rights. This includes their “digital rights” being violated by governments and corporations ‒or both acting in concert‒ regardless of whether the company involved is censoring and discriminating on its own initiative or acting under pressure from authorities. One of the central concerns related to the issue of regulation of the internet in India is that due to absolute lack of knowledge and transparency, a common citizen does not even recognise who the regulators are and how such regulations occur.

An internet that is compatible with and conducive to democracy has to be governed publicly and in a manner that reflects the will of the governed. One also recalls the way in which the political class added a black page in the history of civil liberties in India, when on 23 December, 2008, in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks the Parliament passed 8 bills in 17 minutes without any debate, which included the IT (Amendment) Act, 2008. The inherent anomalies and absurd consequences of section 66 (A) and section 79 are now well known. Such an ad hoc approach adds another challenge in mapping the domestic dimension of India’s internet governance debate.

Despite these challenges, it is still crucial to map the intellectual debate about the internet in India. After all the future is still wide open, and the stakes are too high. The future of the internet in India cannot be just about state security (alone) but in its ability to foster a more just and an open society. Rebecca Mackinnon, in her recent book Consent of the Governed argues that “It is time to stop debating whether the internet is an effective tool for political expression, and to move on to the much more urgent question of how digital technology can be structured, governed, and used to maximize the good it can do in the world, and minimize the evil”.[iv] In the context of India, where vast disparities exist, this also means addressing issues of availability, accessibility and affordability.

Digital Freedom and Digital Divide: Two Sides of the Same Coin

In the Indian context, the mainstream debate about “digital freedoms” often overshadows if not entirely sidelines the wider debate about “digital divide”. The latter represents inequality in terms of access to, use of or knowledge of information and communication technologies (ICT) as well as the quality of internet services. This inequality may be between individuals, groups, geographical regions or  at any other level. In India this divide is multifaceted and is most often visible in at least five forms: region, language, education, gender and disability.

There is also an emerging hierarchy among the internet users in India which hint at yet another layer of inequality in terms of the quality of the internet, knowledge of search strategies, quality of broadbandand mobile connections and social support, ability to engage with the quality of information and diversity of use. All these inequalities, between the cyber-haves and have-nots, as well as those that exist within the internet user base, could be considered as representing the tremendous digital divide in contemporary India.

Hence, digital freedoms should not just mean an “absence of constraints” but also include questions of access and political economy of the internet. Other than political freedom from oppression and interference from government and the corporate sector (often the case involves a mix of both), the debate should also include issues of affordability and a basic aspiration for an environment where such freedom can be enjoyed by all citizens. In other words, issues pertaining to both positive as well as negative liberties (using Isaiah Berlin’s classification) should constitute the essential core of these debates; both the right to communicate as well as individual citizen's online privacy have to be addressed simultaneously.

More contentious issues involve questions about intellectual property along with creating adequate safeguards to protect “digital commons”. Such issues require a great deal of technical understanding about the workings of the internet, but in the end these questions are very fundamental and have been confronted by every society in history.  They belong to the spectrum of broader intellectual arguments about the need for adequate checks and balances on the state and fair trade-offs between security, privacy, economic justice and cultural diversity for the ordinary citizen of India.

There is scope to evaluate the domestic debate on these values, and eventually these debates will inform the international negotiations. Following from the NWICO analogy, it is possible that recent revelations about cyber-espionage and mass surveillance might lead to a closed door approach that allows the strong, and often hidden, arm of the state to seize control of the internet. That is something that no society can afford. Chances are that even if such attempts are made, it simply would not work. Developing a progressive and democratic governance mechanism internationally ought to be a foreign policy goal in 21st century for any state. But India’s NWICO 2.0 agenda must start at home by thoroughly debating its vision and values for the future of the internet. 


[i] According to media reports PRISM was one of the many secret online data collection programmes of the US government. The revelations were first made in the month of June 2013, by the Guardian newspaper and details are still emerging about its origins and scope.

[ii] The popularity of the Pirate Party in European politics reflects the value these societies render to such issues. In India, however, the political parties have only recently started realising the importance of the power of internet in electoral politics. But the fact that only around 12.6% of population in India uses internet, prevents it from becoming a game changer as of now.

[iii] We broadly refer to the “libertarian” model as composed of claims for absolute freedom and minimal state interference. In contrast, “authoritarian” or propaganda model argues that any such freedom is only meaningful under strict guidance and surveillance from the state. China is an explicit example of the latter where such arguments dominate, and the state not only controls access to the internet but has established, what Mackinnon (2012) calls, the “networked authoritarianism”, where corporate networks are turned into opaque and subtle but invasive extensions of government power.

[iv] See Mackinnon, Rebecca (2012): Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet freedom (New York: Basic Books), p. xx.




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