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When cheap smartphones and cellular data became ubiquitous in the 2010s in India, internet access exploded. It wasn’t an evolution but a revolution. India’s internet users grew from 100 million in 2010 to 400 million by 2015 and will top 600 million in 2020, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India. This growth is almost entirely because of new and inexpensive smartphones which, for most Indians, serve as not only their first PCs and internet devices but also their first cameras, TVs, and alarm clocks. Put together, their impact has been transformative. The internet-enabled smartphone is eroding old Indian barriers of language, caste, class, gender, and geography in a way that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Thanks to voice-enabled smartphone technology, even the country’s 250 million illiterate men and women can now access the vast video and audio libraries on the internet.
Just as the car transformed the United States by ushering in an ecosystem of roads, highways, and suburbia, the internet-enabled smartphone promises to create new systems for commerce, travel, and communication that will transform the Indian economy and allow it to leapfrog certain aspects of development. For example, most Indians are set to bypass physical credit cards and go straight to digital wallets. But while these changes are largely seen as adding more freedom and access to the lives of Indians, they represent a double-edged sword. And there are signs that the government is beginning to use the same technology to control its citizens.
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India leads the world when it comes to internet shutdowns. With a simple message to cellular operators, authorities can stop internet access in any village, city, or state. Indian-administered Kashmir, for example, has gone without the internet since August 5, 2019, when New Delhi imposed a curfew on the state. While the government defends communications clampdowns as a necessity to prevent militants from starting attacks, millions of regular citizens find themselves shut out of the modern world. Similar internet shutdowns have taken place across other Indian states, ostensibly to control disinformation during incidents of communal violence. But without checks and balances, these shutdowns could represent a threat to civic rights.
It is not the only such overreach. India is reportedly considering censoring streaming video services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, which would bring them in line with broadcast cable channels that are largely seen as pliant to the government. (Reporters Without Borders ranks India 140th out of 180 countries on press freedom.) Delhi has also been weighing a law to force global companies to keep their data on Indians stored on local servers, a proposal that raised concerns among firms ranging from Visa to Google and Uber, which fear the possibility of misuse or hacking. This follows a 2016 draft law that aimed to force internet companies using maps in the country to show all of Kashmir as part of India, despite the reality on the ground where India administers only around 45% of the region, with Pakistan controlling around 35% and China the remaining 20%. The proposal was abandoned after sustained media criticism and diplomatic pressure, but the larger point was made: New Delhi wants to impose on global firms the same controls it does on domestic companies. Just like China, the richer and more powerful India gets, it wants to shape the global narrative about itself, and to control the valuable data on its citizens.
India already has the world’s biggest biometric database in Aadhaar, a government program started in 2009 that now includes the fingerprints and retinal scans of more than a billion people. While Aadhaar represents a program with the potential for immense good — think of authenticated bank transfers of subsidies to the country’s poor, along with instant identification and verification for e-commerce — there have been numerous instances of data breaches which the government has failed to even recognize, jeopardizing faith in the system. When you factor in to this the alarming potential of government surveillance on every aspect of our lives — and movements — the ability of governments to misuse the internet is endless. Last May, Israeli spyware available only to governments is believed to have been used to hack hundreds of WhatsApp accounts around the world; in India, at least two dozen accounts were targeted, many of them belonging to human rights activists and opposition leaders, leading to accusations the government was behind the breaches. As much as the internet has immense potential to do good in a country like India, it also enables unprecedented surveillance and potential for misuse. The question then is how to create formidable checks and balances.
The short history of the internet in India shows that civil society has fought hard to protect digital freedom. In 2016, for example, India’s telecom regulator ruled against Free Basics, a Facebook-led initiative to provide a free but gated version of the internet. While the ruling protected net neutrality — the principle that internet providers cannot discriminate or control access — it took months of public action and civic engagement to raise awareness about the issue and to fight Facebook’s clout and advertising might. Similarly, rights activists fought to make the case that privacy was a fundamental right, leading to a 2017 Supreme Court ruling enshrining that freedom in the country’s constitution.
The battle to keep the internet free and fair is an endeavor that has no end; new frontiers and areas of control will continue to emerge as the internet itself evolves and advances. Perhaps the question then is whether India can preserve a strong civil society to engage in these fights. And while the answer to that question may define every country, the stakes are greatest in the world’s biggest democracy.