Access Now and 13 other organizations are calling on the Government of India to end its wave of digital censorship and intimidation, including immediately withdrawing its new rules for governing content and communications online. The coalition is also pressuring corporations to step up against the unlawful intrusion by Indian authorities into the rights of the millions of people who use their services everyday.
“The Government of India is seeking to seize control of online spaces,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Senior International Counsel and Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now. “There is a complete lack of transparency surrounding existing government censorship and surveillance demands; the new rules issued by the executive branch are being used to bully social media platforms and online news services into compliance. This assault on fundamental human rights must end.”
People in India are grappling with both the COVID-19 pandemic, and an epidemic of censorship and digital authoritarianism. Amidst a severe shortage of life-saving resources, people have been turning to social media platforms to share and seek resources and critical information, only to be met with government-mandated censorship — including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram takedown orders that encourage platforms to proactively police content.
“The censorship strategies rolling out across India are part of a global trend to limit free expression online,” said Melody Patry, Advocacy Director at Access Now. “By attempting to commandeer online content and control the national narrative, governments are often spotlighting the voices critical to them, while showing their true authoritarian-tainted colors to the world.”
This tightening grip over social media comes amidst a tide of increased government control in India, spearheaded by arguably unconstitutional new intermediary rules notified in February 2021. The rules place onerous obligations on internet intermediaries — such as social media platforms — that risk users’ privacy, security, and shrink the space for freedom of expression, and create a framework for over-censorship.
Through a joint statement, the civil society coalition makes specific calls for change that will help protect and extend people’s rights in India, including:
- Suspend the implementation of the intermediary rules and commit to reviewing them — including undertaking sustained, meaningful and broadly participatory public consultation;
- Make all website blocking orders available in the public domain; and
- Commit to not curtailing the rights to freedom of expression and association, access to information, and privacy.
Technology companies and internet platforms:
- Uphold human rights responsibilities, resist and take measures to mitigate human rights harming mandates from the government;
- Prioritize users’ rights, and challenge unlawful and overbroad demands by authorities;
- Implement effective measures to protect privacy, free expression, and security, and push back on overbroad, unlawful requests; and
- Follow due procedure under laws and international human rights standards in assessing requests from government agencies.
The statement was launched at the RightsCon press briefing, What’s happening in India’s online space? Combatting an epidemic of censorship.