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Yesterday, India entered 7-phases of national elections spanning a little over a month. This election season, we bring to you a ‘Digital Rights Reform Agenda’ which is missing from most political parties’ promises and manifestos. We believe that these topics should be on the agenda list of all political outfits in India claiming a stake on parliament seats. A list of key digital rights issues worthy of political importance are:

  1. Aadhaar - Despite the Aadhaar Amendment Bill not passing the muster of parliament, the government notified the Aadhaar (Amendment) Ordinance. The two main changes introduced by the ordinance are voluntary linking of Aadhaar with mobile connections and bank accounts. We believe that such linking of Aadhaar will severely compromise privacy rights of Indians and also enable surveillance by private companies. Political parties should have promised to withdraw the Aadhaar ordinance and restrict the use of Aadhaar for delivering essential services, subsidies and benefits to citizens.

(INC in its manifesto has promised to limit the use of Aadhaar to subsidies, benefits and services and make its use voluntary. CPI-M has promised to scrap the use of Aadhaar. BJP’s manifesto is silent on Aadhaar reform.) 

  1. Data Protection and Privacy - Political parties should have promised to enact a strong, rights respecting, data protection framework for India. The exceptions to privacy in such a framework must adhere to the three pronged test laid out by the Supreme Court of India - backed by law, necessary and proportionate to the objectives, and having appropriate safeguards. The data protection framework must not contain recommendations such as - data localisation, sweeping exceptions for the executive and centralization of adjudicatory powers, which concentrates power in the hands of the government.

(Only CPI-M has promised to enact data privacy laws. INC has promised to uphold the right to privacy, but is silent on a data protection framework. BJP has promised to create a data protection framework for giving access to banks and haven’t discussed the pending data protection bill.)

  1. Free Speech and Censorship - Freedom of speech and expression is an essential tenet of a democratic country. As the internet has become the new ‘public-square’, political organizations should have promised to protect free speech online. Draconian laws such as - sedition and criminal defamation must not be used to stifle dissent. Purging of illegal content from internet platforms should not be the responsibility of tech-companies alone. Access to the internet has become a basic tool for exercising free expression. Political parties should have promised to make India a zero-internet shutdowns nation, upholding their guarantee of ensuring access to the internet for all.

(INC and CPI-M have promised to omit the law on criminal defamation and sedition. BJP’s manifesto is silent on free speech protection. No party has promised the protection of free speech rights as a focal point of its election promises. No political party has made promises on internet shutdowns, except for the INC which has said it will regulate the power to shut the internet and prevent arbitrary shutdowns.)

  1. Digital Surveillance - With the proliferation of internet enabled devices, performing mass surveillance on citizens has never been easier for governments. Surveillance reform which incorporates judicial oversight and executive restraint is a much needed aspect of the digital rights movement in India. Political parties should have promised to reform the existing surveillance framework in India in line with privacy and free speech rights.

(INC in its manifesto has promised surveillance reform. CPI-M has promised to protect rights to privacy and establish a regime which does not allow for mass surveillance. BJP’s manifesto is silent on surveillance reform.)

  1. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) - Political outfits haven’t promised to ensure the use of ‘Free and Open Source Software’ specially for government organizations and e-governance. The existing FOSS policy of the Government of India is not implemented by the executive. The use of FOSS makes technology more accessible, secure and respects the privacy rights of users.

(INC and CPI-M have promised to promote the use of FOSS. BJP’s manifesto is silent on the use and adoption of FOSS.)