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Indian government must correct moves toward digital authoritarianism, allow tech platforms to uphold rights

Ten international non-profit organizations — Access Now, ARTICLE 19, the Association for Progressive Communications, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Derechos Digitales, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Mnemonic, Reporters Without Borders, and WITNESS — are jointly calling on government authorities and web firms operating in India to cease a crusade of censorship and surveillance across the nation targeting critics speaking online in response to the ongoing #FarmersProtests

Tech companies hold immense power, and must defend privacy, and ensure free speech by pushing back on government orders that infringe on rights. They should:

  • In line with international standards, “engage in prevention and risk mitigation strategies that respect principles of internationally recognized human rights to the greatest extent possible when faced with conflicting local law requirements.”
  • Interpret and implement legal demands as narrowly as possible, to ensure the least possible restriction on expression;
  • Notify users of any government requests for content removals; and
  • Safeguard access to judicial remedy to challenge government requests. 

“States have a positive obligation to protect and respect human rights of all individuals,” said Eliška Pírková, Global Content Governance Lead at Access Now. “What we are witnessing in India, however, is the manipulation and censorship of online spaces stemming from short-sighted regulation aimed at tech giants. Users will pay for this misguided approach, stripped of their basic human rights. What we need is full transparency and accountability built into platforms’ decision-making processes, not changes to the liability regime.”

The Government of India must stop its campaign to silence criticism and censor information related to protests and democratic opposition — including by shutting down the internet at protest sites, preventing journalists from entering protests, filing baseless criminal charges against journalists, using a draconian law to press social media companies to censor critical content, and issuing drastic, overbroad new internet control rules by executive order. Authorities must:

  • Not implement broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information or freedom of speech, or to interfere with free assembly;
  • Comply with the Supreme Court’s Shreya Singhal judgment which clearly states that online speech is protected by the Constitution of India and that platforms are only obliged to comply with removal orders issued by a court or lawfully issued by government agencies;
  • Amend section 69A of the Information Technology Act and related rules to strengthen the due process requirements that must be met prior to any blocking of online content;
  • Review the Telecom Network Suspension Rules of 2017 in an open public consultation;
  • Suspend and reconsider the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules of 2021.

“It is alarming that censoring the internet user base of the world’s largest democracy and curtailing the rights of individuals to free speech and liberty online is increasingly becoming a policy priority for the Government of India,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now. “At every turn there is a new legal measure introduced that will restrict our ability to securely share information online, an arbitrary arrest to deter citizens from peacefully expressing themselves using ICT tools, or an internet shutdown to silence millions of people completely. This must stop now.”

Read the open letter.