Defender of your Digital Freedom

All Posts | Mar 12,2020

Report from the panel discussion on the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 (SFLC.in)

Report from the panel discussion on the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 (SFLC.in) SFLC.in hosted a panel discussion on the ‘Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019' on 27th February 2020. The panel included Justice B. N. Srikrishna, an Indian jurist and retired judge of the Supreme Court of India, who also delivered the keynote address before the panel discussion. Justice Srikrishna has earlier headed the committee that published the Draft Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018. Parminder Jeet Singh, Executive Director, IT for Change; Ashutosh Chadha, Vice President, Public Policy, Mastercard; Rama Vedashree, CEO, Data Security Council of India and Shashank Mohan, Volunteer Counsel, SFLC.in were also part of the panel. The discussion aimed to draw clear conclusions on the key and critical issues in the PDP Bill, 2019 and was moderated by Saikat Datta, South Asia Editor at Asia Times. These are excerpts from the conversation:

All Posts | Jan 03,2018

SFLC.in at Swatantra ’17

Dates: 20 and 21 December 2017
Venue: Mascot Hotel, Trivandrum, Kerala, India
People in attendance: ~400

Panel Discussion

SFLC.in was a part of the closing session titled “Software Freedom – Challenges Ahead”. Panelists included:

  1. Prasanth Sugathan, Legal Director, SFLC.in
  2. Praveen Arimbrathodiyil, Pirate Party of India
  3. Benjamin Maco Hill, Assistant Professor in Communication, University of Washington
  4. Abhas Abhinav, Founder, DeepRoot Linux
  5. Juan Carlos Gentile, Founder & President , Hipatia.

The panel was moderated by Arun M, Programme Head, ICFOSS.

Prasanth Sugathan mentioned that the free software community forms the basis of the entire Internet freedom movement. He spoke about the need to have an ability to tinker with our devices and the effects of losing such a freedom. He mentioned that recent times have seen a gradual shift from the use of copyleft licences to permissive licences - including the harmful effect that this has on the free software movement, and the adoption of proprietary solutions by the government despite a national policy on preferring open source solutions. He also announced SFLC.in's upcoming Women In Tech project to ensure increased participation of women in technology-related fields.

SFLC.in’s Booth

Approximately 250 people visited our booth at the conference. We talked to the conference attendees about digital rights including rights of FOSS projects, our free legal support for FOSS projects, how FOSS projects can protect themselves, software patents, and our other projects to protect and promote internet freedoms and digital rights including internet shutdowns, net neutrality, freedom of speech and cyber security.

We conducted two quiz competitions in which about 40 students participated. We also conducted two raffles for students in which about 70-80 people participated. Prizes for the raffles and quiz competitions included a set of SFLC.in goodies for the winners.

23 people became digital defenders by joining SFLC.in.

All Posts | Jun 26,2017

Delhi Tech Talks [June 23, 2017; New Delhi]

On June 23, 2017, the second edition of Delhi Tech Talks – a collaborative series of quarterly discussions on the state of tech policy in India – was organized by the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi (CCG), Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), HasGeek, Internet Democracy Project (IDP), and SFLC.in at the India International Centre, New Delhi. The overarching theme for this event was data protection, privacy and citizenship, in the context of Aadhaar.

Session 1: Aadhaar, Data Privacy, and What it Means to be a Citizen

The discussion comprised two panels, the first of which was titled “Aadhaar, Data Privacy and What it Means to be a Citizen”. This panel was moderated by Ms. Shuchita Thapar (Project Manager, CCG), and featured the following speakers: Ms. Anja Kovacs (Founder-Director, IDP), Mr. Pranesh Prakash (Policy Director, CIS), Ms. Zainab Bawa (Founder & CEO, HasGeek), Mr. Osama Manzar (Founder, DEF), and Ms. Chinmayi Arun (Executive Director, CCG).

Ms. Anja Kovacs began by highlighting the negatives of surveillance. She said that surveillance is not just a matter of privacy but also social justice, and explained the same from a feminist perspective. In light of the recent comments made by the Attorney General that Indians do not have an absolute right over their bodies, she explained the shifting perspective on the definition of “body”. Ms. Kovacs said that in the age of digital technology, the body is not just limited to the physical self but extends to multiple data doubles in the virtual world. With respect to Aadhaar and the collection of biometrics, she said that if the data reflection of our body does not work, we might be denied basic services by the State and this will influence the relationship between citizen and State.

Mr. Pranesh Prakash was of the view that moving towards digitalization is not necessarily awful. It is a consequence of urbanization and helps in the larger project of nation state building. He emphasized that the problem lies with the implementation of the Aadhaar scheme and not so much with the law. He maintained that he is not against the idea of a foundational identification system upon which other identification mechanisms are based. Mr. Prakash clarified that the issue with Aadhaar is not identification, but unchecked surveillance, though he also added that just because a technology can be used for surveillance does not make it bad per se. Instead, there should be discussions around privacy and accountability with respect to Aadhaar.

Ms. Zainab Bawa said that Aadhaar is like a looming ghost – on one hand there is a growing belief that it is extremely important for one to have an Aadhaar card and on the other hand there is a lot of mystery surrounding its nature. She talked about the politicization of the issue of Aaddhar and how a binary is being promoted by the Government through Aadhaar and demonetisation. The Government is propagating the idea that anything thats analogue is backward. She also pointed out the problem of authentication failure and the confusion among citizens with respect to grievance redressal. Lastly, Ms. Bawa raised the following questions: “What are the spheres of relationships where regulations are required to protect privacy? In the absence of law, can mathematics sometimes provide a more elegant solution for privacy?”

Mr. Osama Manzar started with his views on what it is like to be a citizen in times of technology. According to Mr. Manzar, being a citizen in India is a luxury, considering the number of people who are denied benefits for the lack of Aadhaar. He cited the example of four hundred women sitting in front of a computer for three days to access a printout that was supposed to show that they were paid their MNREGA wages. Mr. Manzar mentioned that Aadhaar is digital exclusion in the name of inclusion.

Ms. Chinmayi Arun spoke about the ideals of a democratic state and how Aadhaar is contrary to it. In the context of Aadhaar, she expressed her skepticism with respect to a project where the Government identifies a problem and then finds a solution that does not necessarily have anything to do with the problem. She said that democracy is based upon a delicate balance between the citizens and the State. Ms. Arun also mentioned the importance decentralization of power in a democratic State. She said that Aadhaar concentrates power and information in the Centre, and that this is incompatible with democracy. Further, Ms. Arun stated that democracy is about not trusting your Government, adding that this is not because the Government has harmful intentions but to maintain that delicate balance between the citizen and the State. It was also remarked by her that the previous draft of the Aadhaar Act had the provision of “ombudsman”, who could pull the plug on the entire system of Aadhaar. It has been removed from the new Act. Ms. Arun also gave the example of Germany, where a subject who is being surveilled is always informed of the same after the surveillance is complete. The subject can approach the court if he/she thinks that he/she has been illegally targeted by the State. This is contrary to what is followed in India, where there is no state accountability mechanism. Most of the safeguards that are considered fundamental in other countries is not implemented in India, said Ms. Arun.

Session 2: When Big Data Becomes Toxic

The second panel of the evening, titled “When Big Data Becomes Toxic” was moderated by Ms. Smitha Krishna Prasad (Project Manager, CCG), and had the following speakers: Mr. Anupam Saraph (Future Designer), Mr. Manish (Research Associate, Centre for Policy Research), Ms. Smriti Parsheera (Research Associate, National Institute for Public Finance and Policy), and Mr. Sukarn Singh Maini (Counsel, SFLC.in).

Mr. Anupam Saraph explained how Aadhaar is being used to facilitate benami transactions. He pointed out that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had initially refused to link Aadhaar with bank accounts, but information received through RTI revealed that they were compelled by the Ministry of Finance to allow the linking. He said that Aadhaar can be used to create multiple fake identities, hence enabling the creation of multiple fake bank accounts. Mr. Saraph highlighted that UIDAI signed an MoU with a non governmental agency called National Payments Corporation of India to create Aadhaar Enabled Payment System, which will enable transfer of funds from person to person instead of account to account.

Mr. Manish started by quoting an anecdote about his experience at a seminar on bonded labour. Representatives of the Government attending the seminar were asked to propose solutions to tackle the evil. Most of the labour secretaries from various states of India were of the view that the solution to tracing bonded labourers was to create a centralised database of such labourers with their Aadhaar details. Mr. Manish also explained how India has become a reluctant welfare state and that there is a push towards digitalization, especially with regard to financial services, post demonetisation.

Ms. Smriti Parsheera talked about big data and databases, and said that big data analysis can be utilized for a lot of good if done in the right way, though she also acknowledged the privacy and data protection challenges with big data. She touched upon the concern of bias with respect to big data analysis, citing the example of biases that creep into the criminal justice system. Lastly, she explained the link between big data and Aadhaar and how unidentifiable Aadhaar data analysis can be used for the benefit of research and analysis that can serve public good.

Lastly, Mr. Sukarn Singh Maini spoke about digital payments such as Unified Payments Interface and e-wallets, and privacy concerns attached to it. He also explained how big data analysis can be used for behavioural advertising. He spoke about Ministry of Electronics Information and Technology’s draft rules on e-wallets, the lack of a privacy and data protection legislation in India and the need for the same, and the need for the Supreme Court to form a bench to decide the pending issue of privacy.

All Posts | Jun 02,2017

Panel Discussion on 03 June 2017: “Tech Policy Talks”

Software Freedom Law Centre, India (SFLC.in), along with Democratic Alliance for Knowledge Freedom (DAKF), is organizing a panel discussion titled, “Tech Policy Talks” on Saturday, June 3, 2017, from 10:00 -13:00 (10 AM to 1 PM) at IBIS Kochi City Center Hotel, Padma Jn., M.G. Road, Kochi.

Click here to register for the event.

The event will have the following sessions:

1. Proliferating Internet Access through the Kerala State IT Policy:
With its visionary State IT Policy of 2017, Kerala is on track to become the first state in the country to recognize Internet access as a basic human right. Initiatives like K:Fon, the state-wide optical fiber network that will provide free/subsidized Internet access to residents, promise to bring every household in the state online by the year 2018 so that they have easy access to government and non-government services delivered over the Internet. When considered alongside central government initiatives like the Digital India program, the State IT Policy and its vision could provide a crucial frame of reference to drive efforts at transforming India into a digitally empowered society and a knowledge economy.Against this backdrop, this session will bring together a group of stakeholders to discuss nuances surrounding the State IT Policy and its rights-based approach to proliferating Internet access. Speakers will also take stock of increasingly frequent government-ordered Internet shutdowns that threaten to derail India’s vision for digital empowerment and growth, and discuss ways to reconcile legitimate security needs that drive such measures with the need for sustained Internet connectivity when it comes to meeting India’s development goals.

2. State of Online Privacy in India:
This session will take a comprehensive look at India’s current legal and policy landscape surrounding online privacy. The discussion will cover such topics as whether Indian citizens enjoy a right to privacy, the ways in which users’ personal information is harvested online, whether there are adequate laws to oversee the collection, storage and sharing of customers’ personal information by Internet-based corporations like Facebook and Google, whether India’s legal and policy frameworks in this regard measure up to global privacy standards, and how India’s current state of privacy protection shapes governance initiatives like the Aadhaar project. The session will lay special emphasis on gaps in existing privacy and data protection frameworks, and facilitate a collaborative discussion on steps that can be taken to fill these gaps. Emphasis will also be laid on privacy concerns surrounding the Aadhaar project, issues raised and arguments advanced by litigants who have challenged Aadhaar in court, as well as perceived shortcomings in the handling of citizens’ Aadhaar information by government agencies.

Click here to register for the event.

All Posts | May 15,2017

Summary Report – Revisiting Aadhaar: Law, Tech and Beyond [May 9, 2017; New Delhi]

On 9th May, 2017, SFLC.in in association with IT for Change and Digital Empowerment Foundation, organized a panel discussion titled “Revisiting Aadhaar: Law, Tech and Beyond” at India International Centre, New Delhi. Saikat Datta, Policy Director, Centre for Internet and Society moderated the panel comprising Anivar Aravind, Founder/Director at Indic Project; Anupam Saraph, Professor and Future Designer; Prasanna S., Advocate; Shyam Divan, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India; Srinivas Kodali, Co-founder at Open Stats; Osama Manzar, Founder and Director, Digital Empowerment Foundation; Usha Ramanathan, Legal Researcher. The event was meant as a forum for stakeholders to discuss recent developments around Aadhaar and formulate community responses to the concerns therein.

The discussion started with a brief introduction by Mr. Prasanth Sugathan (Legal Director, SFLC.in) of SFLC.in’s work related to Aadhaar, covering among others, our catalogues of notifications making Aadhaar mandatory for various purposes, violations of the Supreme Court’s orders limiting the use of Aadhaar, and known breaches and leaks from the Aadhaar database. Mr. Saikat Datta on his opening remarks dealt with a number of interesting developments around the Aadhaar Project – such as the notification of the Aadhaar Act, Aadhaar enrolment being mandatory for availing various benefits and subsidies from the Government, and a series of incidents where individuals’ Aadhaar information was leaked from Government databases – and opened the panel for discussion.

Mr. Osama Manzar said that in the name of e-governance and automation, we have put all our data online. While this may be a great step towards digitization of data, he said it is exclusionary at the same time for anyone who lacks understanding of how technology works. Therefore, even though our focus is inclusion, we are effectively excluding people. We do not have the technological capacity and the capacity to realize that sometimes central databases do not match with biometrics and hence getting entitlements becomes difficult.

Mr. Anivar Aravind pointed out that Aadhaar is not an open source project, as none of the technological infrastructure that has been built by UIDAI so far is open for anyone to audit. The argument that Aadhaar must be saved in light of the significant financial investments already made into the project, does not hold up because Aadhaar is defective by design. Despite assurances that the Aadhaar project’s technical design has secured its database against leaks and breaches, a large number of data leaks have already been reported. Since Aadhaar is linked to centralized services such as Unified Payment Interface, Aadhaar Enabled Payment System, and Bharat Bill Payment System, these should be checked upon and regulated to protect consumer interests. Mr. Aravind said that today, the Government is asking us to trust them blindly without providing a system to audit the technical aspects of Aadhaar and the services linked to it.

Mr. Srinivas Kodali said he has been documenting issues around cyber security breaches and actively writing about them. He recalled an instance, where he had reported an early Aadhaar leak containing the information of 5-6 lakh children to the UIDAI and National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre, and suggested that they do a forensic investigation into the leak, only to have no action taken. Mr. Kodali said he has been working on the scale of actual impact of Aadhaar leaks and that there is ample evidence of data leaks from Government databases. According to him, the security of the Aadhaar system is poor and prone to hacking. He also pointed out that people who built the Aadhaar system, now no longer work for the UIDAI and instead run businesses on top of the Aadhaar framework, thus creating conflict of interest.

On being asked about the Supreme Court’s response to the petitions filed against Aadhaar, Mr. Shyam Divan said that there is no accountability within the Court when it comes to how the roster is assigned. He also said that the Chief Justice of India feels there are not enough judges to spare for the 9-judge Constitution Bench, which is to examine crucial questions of law related to the citizens’ right to privacy in connection with the petitions filed against Aadhaar. Therefore, we are stuck in a difficult position and can only hope for interim relief. Mr. Divan pointed out that the judiciary needs to make its stance clear on the following issues: 1) Who does the body belong to? 2) Issues related to limited governance. 3) Right to Privacy. He added that Aadhaar is an untested technology and an instrument of oppression and exclusion. Even in the hypothetical absence of the Constitution of India, each one of us still has fundamental rights merely by virtue of being human, and these rights cannot be taken away by a project like Aadhaar.

Mr. Anupam Saraph said that the design flaws in Aadhaar start at the assumption that it is a database that identifies millions, which is false. There is no authority to certify proof of identity and address in Aadhaar. Unlike passport, driving license, ration card and other identification documents, there is no verification of Aadhaar details, except by private entities that we have no knowledge of. Also, registrars have the power to retain our data. There is no mechanism within the Aadhaar database to distinguish between citizens-non-citizens, terrorists and innocent citizens. He compared Aadhaar to acquiring AIDS; because it attacks its own citizens by lacking the ability to differentiate between aliens and non-aliens and denying individuals their rights and benefits. Further, he pointed out that recently, a minister admitted that 34,000 Aadhaar enrolment agencies had been blacklisted for indulging in malpractices. On an average, the data shows that thirty thousand enrolments are done by one enrolling agency. On multiplying thirty thousand by thirty four thousand, we get 1.2 billion which is almost the entire database. Therefore an audit is imperative to verify all the data held in the Aadhaar database. Mr. Saraph also mentioned that since the data collected by these rogue agencies is questionable, Aadhaar is a huge threat to national security and should have been shut down long ago. He suggested that we should take a leaf out of the British Parliament that repealed the Identity Cards Act, 2006 and the National identity Register that contained the biometrics and personal details of millions of card holders was publicly destroyed. Mr. Saraph said that we need to pass a legislation that debars Aadhaar in the interest of national security.

Mr. Prasanna S, pointed out that the Government has been coming up with contradictory narratives in an attempt to challenge the maintainability of the petitions filed against Aadhaar. Initially, when the project was challenged, they argued that the petitions were delayed and suffer from latches, but on the other hand, they also said that the petitions were premature as the Parliament had not passed the Bill then. They say Aadhaar is both voluntary and mandatory. On being questioned about authentication failure and leaks, the Government says these are teething problems, while they defend the project saying it is a fait accompli. He also elaborated on the new projects that are being built with Aadhaar as its foundation. Terming Aadhaar an evidence-collecting mechanism rather than a unique identity scheme, Mr. Prasanna said the project has been a systematic attack on consent since its inception. He highlighted that irrespective of whether we value consent or not, there are rights that need to be protected by the State. Quoting the jurist and philosopher Ronal Dworkin, he said rights give the law a claim to respect, and that without rights, law is just brutality.

Dr. Usha Ramanathan explained that Aadhaar is an “identification” project and not a “unique identity” project. It was brought into the Government by the private sector, therefore there are private ambitions floating out of it, so the government is satisfying a double-agenda. She said that the meaning of rights and restrictions have interchanged in these times. Over the years, restrictions have become more fundamental and the Government is shifting from rights to a governance framework. She was also of the view that individuals need to care more about the Aadhaar project and the manner in which it is being implemented. She highlighted the importance of civil disobedience and the need to learn a common humanity. She emphasized that blind obedience is the worst thing in a democracy – people should be encouraged to interrogate and question. She said that freedom cannot be compartmentalized, and that we need to take responsibility for everyone.

A number of interesting questions were asked and remarks were made by the audience, a notable few of which were:

  • Can Aadhaar enable the government to track down activists? Mr. Srinivas Kodali answered that while the Aadhaar system is certainly capable of being used to profile individuals, he doesn’t believe the UIDAI is actively doing so. However, the large scale collection personal information by private players for Aadhaar authentication etc. is still cause for concern, he said. Dr. Ramanathan added that with Aadhaar’s linkage to all kinds of essential activities and services, and with the Government reserving the right to disable Aadhaar cards, it is very easy for the Government to target activists and other dissenting voices through Aadhaar, should they wish to do so.

  • A petition has been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the money bill aspect of the Aadhaar Act. Will the court ever look into it? Mr. Shyam Divan answered that any reasonable person who looks at the Aadhaar Act will know its not a money bill. He said that he is hopeful the court will look into this aspect and not hide behind the argument that the Lok Sabha speaker’s call is final. It is the judiciary that is the final authority on this. Mr. Divan also remarked that the Aadhaar project is an architecture for hundred percent mass surveillance over the lifetime of Indian citizens. It is going to affect peoples’ political and social choices, and must therefore be challenged.

  • Is there any way to deactivate / cancel an Aadhaar number? To this, Mr. Prasanna suggested that Section 23 of the Aadhaar Act, which empowers the UIDAI to omit/deactivate Aadhaar numbers, may be invoked to request the UIDAI to deactivate an Aadhaar number. He made it clear however, that Section 23 merely reserves this broad power for the UIDAI and in no way creates an obligation to honor such requests.

  • The judiciary is unable to contain the massive violation of interim orders and the manner in which the project is being implemented. What does the common citizen do? Mr. Divan answered that we have to be optimistic and keep fighting – we must not give up hope. Mr. Anupam Saraph mentioned that if the court does not give a favourable judgment, then individuals have to start interpreting what civil disobedience means to them.

All Posts | May 05,2017

Panel Discussion – Revisiting Aadhaar: Law, Tech and Beyond [May 9, 2017; New Delhi]

The last one year has seen a number of interesting developments around the Aadhaar project, such as the notification of the Aadhaar Act, Aadhaar enrolment being made mandatory for availing various benefits and subsidies from the Government, and a series of incidents where individuals’ Aadhaar information was leaked from Government databases.

Against this backdrop, SFLC.in, in partnership with the Digital Empowerment Foundation and IT for Change, is organizing a panel discussion titled, “Revisiting Aadhaar: Law, Tech and Beyond” on Tuesday, May 9, 2017, from 3:30 PM – 6:00 PM at Lecture Hall No 1, India International Centre (Annexe), New Delhi. This event is meant as a forum for stakeholders to discuss recent developments around Aadhaar and formulate community responses to the concerns therein. Panelists for this discussion will be:

  • Saikat Datta; Policy Director, Centre for Internet and Society (Moderator)
  • Anivar Aravind; Founder/Director at Indic Project
  • Anupam Saraph; Professor and Future Designer
  • Prasanna S; Advocate
  • Shyam Divan; Senior Advocate, Supreme Court
  • Srinivas Kodali; Co-founder at Open Stats
  • Osama Manzar; Founder and Director, Digital Empowerment Foundation
  • Usha Ramanathan; Legal Researcher

If you are interested in attending this event, kindly send an RSVP to mamta@sflc.in latest by Sunday, May 7. Alternatively, you can register to attend at this [link].

All Posts | Apr 26,2017

Summary Report – Access Denied: Internet Shutdowns in a Digital India [April 24, 2017; New Delhi]

On 24th April, 2017, SFLC.in in association with Digital Empowerment Foundation, Internet Democracy Project, IT for Change, Centre for Internet and Society, and Foundation for Media Professionals organized a public discussion titled “Access Denied: Internet Shutdowns in a Digital India” at Hauz Khas Social, New Delhi. The event was meant to be a platform to discuss the increasing instances of Internet shutdowns in an India that’s rapidly moving toward digitalization. The discussion centered around Internet shutdowns as a policy practice, covering the idea behind shutdowns, the ground level implications of frequent access disruptions, and possible solutions to the problem that balance security interests of the state with the need for sustained Internet connectivity. The event had attendees from the industry, civil society, and media.

The discussion started with the keynote speaker Mr. Baijayant Panda, Member of Parliament, Lok Sabha, making the following points:

  • He pointed out that open ended Internet shutdowns are taking place in India that continue for days on end without any regard to the provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (hereinafter referred as IT Act).

  • A majority of police officials are unaware of the IT Act and frequently resort to Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (CrPC) to control a law and order situation. The police force should be educated and trained on the various aspects of IT Act, related to circumstances under which Internet shutdowns can be allowed.

  • Further, he talked about the need for better laws and policies as we move towards a Digital India. He also mentioned that in a civilized democracy, a system of checks and balances should be adhered to and consistency between offline and online laws is imperative.

  • The importance of providing equal thrust to data protection and privacy was discussed at length with the example of how wiretapping is a frequent phenomenon in India with bureaucrats approving wiretaps.

  • In the end, Mr. Panda suggested that for prolonged durations of Internet shutdowns, a procedure should be developed wherein prior approval of the entire cabinet needs to be taken. He further mentioned that the scope of these shutdowns should be extremely narrowly defined, like in the case of an immediate threat of law and order breakdown. All measures should pass the test of objectivity, accountability and transparency.

The other speakers on the panel made some pertinent points too, with Mr. Abhinandan Sekhri, CEO, Newslaundry, holding the view that the police force should be the last one to decide on the institution of an Internet shutdown. It was also pointed out by him that there is a fundamental flaw in how law making is approached in India, with limited consideration for impact on civil liberties. On policy making, he opined that although the push for better policies in the need of the hour, the courts should not interfere in policy making.

Mr. Muheet Mehraj, Co-Founder, Kashmir Box, spoke about Internet shutdowns in Kashmir and how it affects life and especially, business, including his own startup. He pointed out that the Internet is not a luxury like it was before. It is now a part of our life and who we are. He emphasized that the Internet was designed with freedom and openness of communications as core values and Internet shutdowns have a deep emotional impact on business owners, to the extent of some of them even contemplating suicide. He focused on the need to work on a model that allows essential services like hospitals, educational institutions, etc., to remain accessible even when there is a curfew.

Ms. Sairee Chahal, CEO, SHEroes, indicated that the general public is unaware of Internet clampdowns. She also brought up the issue of a lack of involvement of solid voices from the technology space like website owners, digital entrepreneurs and even hackers in this debate. The Internet community’s participation is crucial to widen the technology debate, and may even be capable of offering technological solutions to problems like rumor-mongering. Also, a robust independent media is essential to counter the layers of discourse related to Internet shutdowns.

A question was asked by Ms. Ritu Srivastava, Assistant General manager, Research and Advocacy, Digital Empowerment Foundation, regarding Internet shutdowns being instituted in the name of social unrest and communal violence. She highlighted the need for solutions using minimalistic methods instead of resorting to drastic measures like completely suspending Internet services. She also drew attention to her organization’s role in measuring the social as well as psychological impact of such network disruptions. Further, it was discussed that telecom stakeholders need to engage more in the Internet shutdowns debate and be more transparent about their data.

Mr. Snehashish Ghosh, Associate Manger, Public Policy, Facebook discussed various instances of law enforcement agencies taking to social media to curb possible violence and prevent the spread of rumors. He also elucidated Facebook’s role in restraining online harassment.

On being asked about the patterns of Internet shutdowns, Ms. Vaishali Verma, Counsel, SFLC.in, described the study on trends in Internet shutdowns conducted by SFLC.in that includes analyzing the type, duration and nature of shutdowns.

During group interaction, a number of interesting remarks were made, a notable few of which were:

  • A question was asked about the effectiveness of an Internet shutdown in a sensitive area like Kashmir to control law and order which was answered by stating that Internet shutdowns essentially do not help in such situations because people turn to alternatives.

  • It was pointed out that the pattern of Internet shutdowns around the country including the type, duration, nature and the geographical area of the shutdown should be analyzed to come up with a solution.

  • The use of counter-speech as a tool to fight rumor-mongering on the Internet instead of a shutdown was discussed.

  • The contentious issue of politicization of the Internet was brought up by the audience. The usage of the Internet as a propaganda tool and the need to address the same was highlighted.

All Posts | Dec 03,2016

Press release: Report on ‘Online Harassment: A form of Censorship’

Mindless abuse and threats of violence are commonplace on online speech platforms like social media websites nowadays, says a new report titled, ‘Online Harassment: A Form of Censorship’, by SFLC.IN, a Delhi-based not-for-profit legal services organization.

Greater transparency and responsiveness in content moderation processes adopted by such platforms, along with renewed focus on capacity building for law enforcement agents could go a long way towards addressing the issue, finds the report. Attention should also be paid to educating people about existing mechanisms for combating online harassment, the report adds.

“There is a need for adequate legal protections against online harassment. However, this should not be seen under any circumstance as an endorsement of draconian laws like the now-repealed Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act), which lent itself to wanton abuse due to its over-broad and ambiguous language”, said Baijayant Panda, Member of Parliament, Lok Sabha, also one the interviewees featured in the report.

Free speech should not be restrained, unless it is transcending from talk to action: MP Baijayant Panda at SFLC.IN report launch.

Delivering the keynote address at the report launch, Mr Panda said, “Speech itself should not be restrained or shut down forcibly unless there is imminent clear and present danger of violence, or break down of public order.”

At the same time, there must be harmony between the laws that impact us in real lifeand those that impact us online. Online world can be liberating but if someone is threatening you, they should notbe able to get away with it by claiming free speech protections, he said.

The report is supported by the Software Freedom Law Center, New York and Jigsaw, a New York based think tank, and features dialogues with key stakeholders, including social media platforms and 18 prominent individuals involved in the debate around online hate speech and harassment.

The individuals interviewed for the report include legislators, journalists, civil society actors and targets of online harassment campaigns, who have had first hand glimpses at the plight of the harassed. The list of individual interviewed is provided in Editor’s notes below.Talking about the report, Mishi Choudhary, Executive Director at SFLC.IN said, “We have been studying online harassment as form of censorship that forces people out of participation in online policy discourses. This report’s goal is to explore this phenomenon in detail, document how people experience the effects of harassment in their lives as we work towards finding a workable and understandable ways to address the problem.”

“Online platforms presently suffer from lack of trust when it comes to guaranteeing users’ safety, and the significant levels of human intervention in content moderation further dilutes this trust as it involves personal biases”, noted Arvind Gupta, National Head, Information and Technology, BJP – another one of the report’s interviewees. “As we move towards digital democracy, it is absolutely critical for platforms to stay neutral. Platforms need to build a system of trust and non partisanship by heeding user feedback and implementing broad-based changes to their content moderation practices on the basis of this feedback”, he said.

Calling human intervention as of ‘paramount importance’ in maintaining civility on platforms, Chetan Krishnaswamy, Country Head, Public Policy, Google India said, “Considering the volume of content being generated, technology tools are at times necessary in content moderation. However, human involvement is still required to sift through the content and determine what is right and what is wrong.”

Dr. Anja Kovacs, Director of Internet Democracy Project, said that more law was not the solution to tackling the issue of online harassment. “I think it’s really important to not have the same standard for all intermediaries. Even though in this debate of Facebook versus Twitter, Facebook is often seen as the more safe platform but many activists still prefer Twitter because it allows anonymity.”

Representing that element of the state that enforces‘reasonable restrictions’ on freedom of expression, Anyesh Roy – Deputy Commissioner of Delhi Police (Cyber Crime) said,“We often face jurisdiction issues with platforms; who sometimes refuse to share information. All platforms with consumers in India should respect the law of the land and share information when requested by the law enforcement.” He also talked about the need to evolve an “entire ecosystem and mechanisms within the intermediaries where grievances are addressed and everybody is able to enjoy their freedom of expression.”

Mahima Kaul, Head of Public Policy, Twitter India, talked about the policy changes introduced by Twitter last week where people can mute certain phrases or conversations. “This is indicative of how seriously Twitter addresses the issue of harassment and has a policy against hateful conduct.”

Saikat Datta, Cyber Security Consultant and Consulting Editor at Scroll.in, said,“If there is a certain amount of ugliness that reflects on social media platforms, we should be able to recognize the horrors of society and take action upon them.” Saikat added how ‘privacy’ should be a fundamental right as it has huge implications on, among other things, free speech.

The report suggests the following safeguards to social media users against online harassment and abuse:

  • Thoroughly screen the personal information shared online
  • Consider dedicating an email-ID for social media use
  • Avoid uploading photos that identify you along with your location to protect your identity
  • Use a pseudonym, if anonymity is relevant in your online activities
  • Keep a tab on information others post about you to ensure no personally identifiable information reaches unwanted hands
  • Run Internet searches on yourself to monitor unauthorized information appearing online
  • Use stronger passwords, and review your service providers’ privacy policies

The report further recommends the following steps to be taken in cases where users find themselves at the receiving end of targeted online harassment campaigns:

  • Report incidents to the concerned service providers
  • Block the perpetrators, when the perpetrators are limited in number
  • Approach law enforcement as a last resort, when there are real threats to physical safety
  • Seek help from social media influencers
  • Record all communications with perpetrators, service providers and law enforcement
  • Seek support from friends and family

For platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the report suggests the set of following 11 draft best practices to limit online harassment, with the express condition that these proposals require substantial deliberations before being formalized:

  1. Have in place rules that prohibit hateful, disparaging, and harassing content on intermediary networks; rules must be clearly articulated and designed for easy consumption; include illustrative examples for each category of prohibited content
  2. Generate awareness within user community on prohibited content; notification systems, promotional banners etc. could be leveraged for the purpose
  3. Enable easy and accurate reportage by users and third-parties; include easily identifiable “report” buttons; provide adequate opportunities to substantiate why content must be removed
  4. Have clearly defined review processes prescribing (where possible) objective standards for determining permissibility; refer to applicable national laws
  5. Deploy dedicated teams to review and disable content; provide periodic training to review teams on efficient identification and disablement;
  6. Review reports and disable content within a prescribed time frame (24/48/76 hours)
  7. Provide opportunities to creators of disabled content to justify themselves; include 
provisions for timely restoration of disabled content and reinstation of terminated accounts
  8. Share best practices within stakeholder community; contribute to building effective multi- stakeholder norms for tackling prohibited content
  9. Liaise with law enforcement; aid in investigation of reported offenses in consonance with established legal procedures
  10. Work with other stakeholder communities; engage with civil society organizations and academia on awareness generation; conduct trainings/workshops for law enforcement officials on reportage mechanisms so as to facilitate effective handling of complaints
  11. Promote counter-speech; invite counter narratives from public figures; offer incentives; conceptualize additional means to promote counter-speech

“This is but the first in a series of studies that SFLC.in intends to undertake in this domain. We invite people to join us as we attempt to build a sustainable dialogue around online harassment, as participatory and result-oriented initiatives are required to arrive at a definitive solution,” Ms. Choudhary added.


Editor’s Notes

The list of interviewees for the ‘Online Harassment: A Form of Censorship’ report is below (in alphabetical order):

  1. Abhinandan Sekhri, Co-founder, NewsLaundry
  2. Arvind Gupta, National Head, Information and Technology, BJP
  3. Baijayant Panda, Member of Parliament, Lok Sabha
  4. Bishakha Datta; Executive Director, Point of View
  5. Hartosh Singh Bal; Political Editor, The Caravan
  6. Inji Pennu; Writer, activist
  7. Karuna John; Freelance journalist
  8. Kavita Krishnan; Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Commission
  9. Meena Kandasamy; Poet, writer, activist
  10. Navrang S B; Former Head of Social Media, BJP
  11. PrabirPurkayastha; Editor, Newsclick
  12. Rajeev Chandrasekhar; Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha
  13. Rakshit Tandon; Cyber Security Expert and Consultant
  14. Ravish Kumar; News Anchor, NDTV India
  15. Rega Jha; Editor, BuzzFeed India
  16. Rohit Chopra; Associate Professor, Santa Clara University
  17. Saikat Datta; Journalist
  18. Sheeba Aslam; Journalist, scholar and Islamic writer

A copy of the report can be accessed here.

All Posts | May 12,2016

Panel Discussion on Privacy, National Security & India’s need for a Privacy Legislation

Panel Discussion on Privacy Law

SFLC.in, along with the Mr. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Member of Parliament is organizing a panel discussion on 'The Need For a Dedicated Privacy Legislation In India: Next Steps' on 12th May 2016 from 4pm to 7pm at Constitution Club of India, New Delhi.

The recent debate on the contentious Aadhaar Act saw the issue of privacy and data protection take centre stage. But inspite of the success of the Digital India initiative, the progress on the privacy front has not kept pace. As the government comes up with initiatives of collecting large volume of citizen data, rolling out internet services to villages and integrating subsidies to biometric data, there is an urgent need for an overarching comprehensive law in India on privacy and data protection. Although, the efforts at drafting a privacy legislation are underway since 2011, a concrete bill has not been laid in front of the Parliament for consideration.

Keeping this in mind, Member of Parliament, Rajeev Chandrasekhar and SFLC.in are organizing a panel discussion on the theme of 'The Need for a Dedicated Privacy Legislation in India.' This discussion aims to conduct a stakeholder conversation with academia, civil society, private sector, and government associates, regarding the drafting of India's privacy law, and the vital components that should be included therein. While learning from the global experiences in privacy regimes, we hope to pursue a nuanced discussion with respect to the extent and limitations of collection, retention and disclosure of personal information of citizens, along with measures that should permit a certain level of indulgence by the State for reasons of national security, prevention of acts of terrorism, and in situation of emergencies.

Considering the heightened global debate surrounding the sharing of personal data with state actors for purposes of national security and protection of state, this discussion will have a special emphasis on the safeguards that should find place in the Indian privacy legislation to balance the concerns of national security with that of a citizen's privacy.

There are two panels:

1. Balancing the concerns of national security & safeguarding a citizen's privacy
With the background of implications of initiatives like Aadhaar operating in the absence of privacy legislation, thediscussion will focus on the safegaurds needed for protecting the ciitizen's privacy rights 2. Taking from global experiences, formulating the essential elements for India's privacy framework A look into the privacy laws of other countries, and a thorough discussion on the necessary inclusions in India's privacy legislation.