When the internet came to India on the eve of independence day in 1995, it promised mass connectivity. With connectivity, citizens in cities, towns and villages alike would be able to connect to worlds beyond their immediate vicinity; information and services, hitherto the monopoly of the rich and powerful would become accessible to all.
As an 11-year old growing up in Kolkata, I too was gripped by the heady prospect of having the world at my fingertips. My mother took me to the British Council Library where I set up a Yahoo account and spent hours digging up random trivia sourced from Encarta 95. Over time, I had a dial-up modem installed at home using which I checked examination marks online, did some extra research for school and became a truly digital citizen.
What was available to me in the 90s in a middle class Kolkata home has today permeated large sections of the country. But the quest to get the country online has not even reached the halfway mark. According to a report by the Internet & Mobile Association of India and Nielsen in 2019, 451 million users aged above 5 were active online in India, less than 50% of the population. Female users accounted for half of the total male users. Rural internet penetration was abysmally low at 27%. Even for those who are online, the quality of service requires significant improvement. It ought to be a matter of some regret to governments, internet evangelists and civil society that 25 years on, fundamental, first-order problems of internet access and quality remain.
A dominant reason for this state of affairs is a misguided contemporary narrative around the internet that focuses primarily on privacy and state surveillance. Needless to say, privacy on the internet is an issue that affects every user, rich or poor. But the prioritisation of privacy and state surveillance in the narrative over fundamental questions of access and quality has meant that public and governmental focus has leapfrogged fundamental issues to second-generation ones.
What this has unwittingly done is to decelerate the spread of internet in the country. The BharatNet project of the government, designed to connect all Gram Panchayats, has missed multiple targets to very little public criticism. As of January 2020, only 7.45% of the 150,000 Gram Panchayats meant to be connected in Phase 2 are service-ready. Jio has stepped into this breach promising to connect every village. Private telecom operators may indeed be the country’s best chance to get online. It’s a pity though that in the process, ensuring access to the internet is no longer treated as a duty of the state; it has become contingent on the choices made by private corporations.
Apart from benefiting Indian corporations, the state surveillance-centric narrative has also let large foreign corporations off the hook. Vast amounts of data of Indians has already been collected without the concomitant payment of taxes in India. Of course, like the East India Company, which started building railroads to connect the country, Indians have benefited from foreign corporations as well.The promise of free internet at railway stations, the ability to post videos or have a service that curates a timeline of photos, do make lives better. But these short-term gains have come at the cost of our long-term sovereignty as these corporations are ultimately their own masters.
If August 15,1995 was India’s tryst with internet destiny, August 15,2020 is the time for the internet ecosystem in India to redeem its pledge. A pledge to dedicate itself to the service of the people of India, the unconnected, the digitally illiterate, the poor, and to the still larger cause of humanity. The internet that will emerge from these efforts will undoubtedly be very different from what we see today—more local, less in English, fairer in terms of empowering individuals to control their digital lives, and freer, without individual and community data being colonised by states and private corporations.
But each of these can only happen if we make getting every Indian online our first priority—to give millions of 11-year olds in cities, towns and villages the joy of having the world at their fingertips. So as the internet turns 25 in India, here is a thought to set the ball rolling on the next 25—Parliament should introduce Article 21B of the Constitution, making the right to access the internet a fundamental right of all citizens. Happy internet independence day to all.
(Arghya Sengupta is Research Director, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. With inputs from Sumeysh Srivastava. Views are personal.)
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