Internet Freedom Remained Stable in 2017 After a Decline in 2016

Internet access and speeds improved (see Availability and Ease of Access: Key Indicators).

Local authorities ordered temporary telecommunication service shutdowns in at least 37 separate reported incidents (see Restrictions on Connectivity).

Officials ordered service providers in the Kashmir valley to block 22 social media sites for a month, including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp (see Blocking and Filtering).

Over 20 people were detained for online comments about religion or political issues ranging from a water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to a demonetization policy intended to combat corruption; a Kashmiri was held for several weeks in Chhattisgarh for sharing an “anti-India” cartoon (see Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities).

The Supreme Court recognized privacy as a fundamental right in a landmark ruling in August 2017 (see Surveillance, Privacy and Anonymity).

Internet freedom remained stable in 2017 after a decline in 2016. Improving access was offset by network and social media shutdowns ordered by authorities.

The number of internet subscribers and internet penetration increased significantly during the reporting period, as India consolidated its position as the world’s second largest internet consumer base after China. Both governmental and nongovernmental entities made efforts to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural areas.

A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court held that privacy is a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution and a committee was set up to frame a data protection framework for India.

However, other developments undermined internet freedom. The number of network shutdowns increased substantially and local authorities ordered service providers to temporarily shut down internet access in at least 37 reported incidents in various states.

There was also an increase in the number of criminal charges for online speech filed under the IT Act and provisions of the penal code. Many people were detained for content circulated on WhatsApp or published on Facebook, including group administrators who were not responsible for the content.

Obstacles to Access:
12/25 (Freedom on the Net Score: 0=Most Free, 100=Least Free)

Internet penetration in India continued to increase in 2017 with mobile penetration playing a significant role. Inadequate infrastructure remains a significant obstacle to access, especially in rural areas; however, various governmental and nongovernmental efforts to improve access nationwide are underway. Nearly 40 information communication technology (ICT) shutdowns were ordered by local authorities, some lasting several months in Jammu and Kashmir. The top ten internet service providers (ISPs) still hold almost the entire market share, but strong competition among them continues.

Availability and Ease of Access

Internet access and speeds improved during the reporting period (see Key Access Indicators). India had the second largest number of Internet subscribers in the world after China in 2017, having overtaken the United States. Official statistics recorded over 431 million subscribers in June 2017, though only 21.6 million had fixed-line internet connections. There were an estimated 269 million internet users in urban India and 163 million in rural India in 2016.

However, internet penetration remains low, reaching 33 percent in June 2017, up from 27 percent in June 2016. Mobile penetration was much higher, reaching 92 percent by June 2017, up from 81 percent the previous year. The Broadband Commission ranked India 78 out of 196 countries in terms of mobile broadband penetration, up from 156 out of 179 countries the previous year.

While India’s average connection speed was one of the lowest in Asia, it is catching up to the global average, which Akamai documented at 7.2 Mbps in the first quarter of 2017.Approximately 34 percent of all internet users had narrowband subscriptions in 2016, down from 56 percent in 2015. Despite overall growth, India has a relatively low adoption rate for high speed broadband (faster than 10 Mbps), at just 19 percent, though this rate grew by 285 percent during the course of 2016.

The minimum speed required to qualify as broadband in India has been 512 Kbps since 2012, though the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has recommended raising the threshold to 2 Mbps.

The Global Information Technology Report by the World Economic Forum and INSEAD ranked India in eighth place out of 139 countries for affordable internet access in 2016. It was previously in first place, and per minute cellular and fixed broadband tariffs are still among the lowest in the world. While the cheapest internet plans might seem extremely affordable with respect to the average monthly income, India has significant income inequality.

India ranked 66 out of 137 countries for infrastructure in 2017, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. Though up from 68 the previous year, the results suggest poor infrastructure is still an obstacle to access. India ranked a low 88 for electricity supply; and 110 for technological readiness, the capacity of a country to fully leverage ICTs in daily activities.Only 27 percent of all Indian schools had a computer in 2016. That increased to nearly 80 percent at secondary level and above, but less than half were connected to the internet.

Public and private sector initiatives to improve access are underway. The government is developing free public Wi-Fi zones in major cities, with some operational in the past year. In January 2017, the Maharashtra government activated 500 Wi-Fi hotspots across the city of Mumbai,though further expansion fell short, and they were only free until August 2017.

During the coverage period of this report, Google partnered with the public sector company RailTel to provide free Wi-Fi at train stations, connecting 100 by the end of 2016. Over 5 million people were using the service every month.

The government’s Digital India Programme, launched in 2014 is expected to be implemented by 2018. It aims to connect India’s gram panchayats, institutions of self-government in rural areas, via fiber-optic cables, ensuring universal broadband access with accompanying e-literacy programs. Internet-connected common service centers (CSCs) aim to cover all 250,000 gram panchayats; as of March 2016, 157,000 had been established, with 20,000 operated by women.

The program proposes to use satellites, balloons, or drones to push faster digital connections to remote parts of the country, as well as multiple system operators such as cable TV services, which already have last-mile connectivity. As a result of the program, electronic transactions related to e-governance projects almost doubled in 2015.

Such initiatives took on new significance during the coverage period, which saw a major push to digitize financial transactions. The government demonetized currency notes in the denominations of INR 500 and INR 1000 (US$7.5 and $15) in November 2016; the notes made up over 85 percent of the total currency in circulation. A Digi Dhan Abhiyan program was designed to promote digital payments to more than ten million inhabitants of rural areas, reaching 2.5 million people by the end of the year. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) also announced an alliance with Google to raise awareness of digital security surrounding payments.

Language remains a barrier to access. With 22 official languages, only about 12 percent of the population of India speaks English, yet more than half the content available online is in English, and over 100 languages were unrepresented online in 2013.

Projects to encourage local language usage are underway. In 2014, the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI), which operates and manages Indian domain names, launched the Dot Bharat domain for local language URLs. By April 2017, the number of local language users in India had overtaken the number who rely on English. One study showed that nearly 70 percent of Indian internet users consider local language content to be more reliable than English content. In April 2017, Google partnered with a local business federation to develop content in Indic languages.

Studies have shown that economic and social conditions result in barriers to internet access for women, and only 29 percent of Indian internet users were female in 2015. Internet usage was lower among rural women (25 percent), though it had grown by 30 percent since 2015. Twenty-four percent of Indian Facebook users were women, well below the global average of forty-four percent, according to one calculation. Internet Saathi, a partnership between Google and Tata Trusts to promote digital literacy among rural women, was active in 25,000 villages across 10 states by October 2016, training more than 500 participants a week.

Restrictions on Connectivity

The Indian government does not routinely block the protocols or tools that allow for instant, person-to-person communication, although local authorities around India have restricted ICT connectivity and usage during times of perceived unrest since at least 2010.

The frequency, geographic distribution, and duration of these shutdowns have increased significantly in the past three years. During the coverage period of this report, authorities ordered providers to restrict local mobile phone, SMS, wireless, and occasionally fixed-line internet service in at least 37 reported incidents, which lasted for hours, weeks, or even months at a stretch.

Local authorities have justified these orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (1973), which permits broad state action to curb any violation of law and order. The Gujarat High Court upheld the use of this general law to order shutdowns in September 2015. The Supreme Court is yet to consider the matter substantively and refused a petition challenging it in early 2016.

Other laws used to justify shutdowns also lack specificity. Section 69A of the Information Technology (IT) Act, which permits the central government to order website blocks (see Limits on Content) has been consideredto apply to blocking of service. Section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act, which allows state and central authorities to order that any message not be transmitted in public emergencies, has also been cited in support of service disruptions. State officials in Odisha suspended service for 48 hours under the Telegraph Act after content considered to derogate Hindu deities resulted in violence.

In August 2017, outside the coverage period of this report, the Department of Telecommunications of the Central Government issued new rules under the Telegraph Act to regulate the temporary suspension of telecom services. The rules authorize national or state-level officials to issue temporary suspension orders to shut down telecommunications services in times of public emergency or threats to public safety.

With at least 12 documented incidents, Jammu and Kashmir continued to be the most affected state. Shutdowns affected both mobile and fixed-line connections, and the longest lasted several months.
In June 2016, mobile internet services were suspended across the state for three days after a temple was vandalized, launching an outbreak of violence.They were suspended for a day on a second occasion in the Jammu region because of security fears surrounding an annual wrestling contest hosted on contested land.

In July 2016, security forces shot and killed militant commander Burhan Wani in Kashmir, sparking widespread protests. All mobile service providers except BSNL, the state operator, suspended phone service in the Kashmir valley, and all operators suspended mobile internet throughout the state. The phone services were restored after a few days. Mobile internet services were restored in the Jammu region after 17 days. In the Kashmir region, mobile internet for post-paid subscribers remained unavailable for 134 days. Internet was not restored for prepaid subscribers until January 2017, almost 6 months later.Broadband internet in the valley was also shut down for 5 days in August due to the ongoing tensions between protestors and security forces.

In September 2016, broadband services across Kashmir were suspended for an additional five days prior to the Eid festival.

In April 2017, both mobile and fixed-line broadband internet services were suspended for a few days in the Kashmir valley when local by-elections sparked unrest. The measure was intended to curb rumors, but had the opposite effect, reports said. Mobile internet across the valley was suspended again amid student protests.Social media applications were also blocked (See Blocking and Filtering).

Shutdowns were implemented in several more states, including Maharashtra, Bihar, Odisha,Uttar Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh. Haryana and Rajasthan saw at least seven incidents each. Haryana shutdowns came in response to ongoing, sometimes violent protests by the Jat caste over their eligibility for government affirmative action quotas. In Rajasthan, internet was blocked on at least four occasions in Bhilwara district, once following the murder of a Hindu nationalist activist in September 2016, and three times within two weeks in December 2016 after communal violence flared in December 2016.

The government does not exert much control over the internet infrastructure. Twelve submarine cables connect India to the global internet; ten are consortium owned, while the others are private. There are gateways to the international internet in Chennai, Mumbai, and Agartala in Tripura, which facilitates connectivity in north-eastern states.

There are four landing stations where the cables meet the mainland in Mumbai, and three in Chennai; Digha, Kochi and Tuticorin also have one cable landing station each. BSNL, the state-owned telecom operator, owns two of them; the rest are privately owned. Major telecom operators Bharti Airtel and Tata Communications own three stations each. These cable landing stations imposed hefty fees on ISPs until regulators mandated a reduction in 2013. Tata Communications and Airtel challenged that reduction in the Madras High Court. A single judge dismissed it, and an appeal was pending in early 2017.

Undersea cables are mainstays of mobile and internet communications and any damage to them leads to service disruptions. In December 2016, Cyclone Vardah caused damage to Airtel’s undersea cable at Chennai, slowing internet speeds.

Over 80 percent of telecommunications towers are privately owned. Market share is split between Indus Towers, a joint venture between Bharti Infratel, Vodafone, and Idea Cellular (31 percent); BSNL (18 percent); and Reliance Infratel (12 percent), and Bharti Infratel (10 percent) according to 2015 figures.

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