The Global Emergence of Internet Access as a Human Right in the Virtual Era

Internet Access as a Human Right

Internet access has emerged as a basic human right in the last two decades. This article takes a look at the challenges surrounding access to the internet in the Indian context.

Introduction

Internet in today’s age is the greatest technological advancement and agent of economic and social change. The role of the internet has changed the lives of people. The post-Covid world is also more digitalized than ever before. With the recent landmark rulings, access to the internet has been recognized as a basic human right.

The author will analyse the significance of the internet and its abrupt shutdown by the government, which violates the basic fundamental rights of the people. Furthermore, the article would also emphasize the digital literacy revolution amidst the pandemic.  At last, the author suggests steps to provide internet access to everyone including the remote areas.

Role of the Internet In today’s Scenario

In today’s time, the internet provides a crucial link to information that helps us keep our families healthy and safe during this global health crisis. From online learning to working from home, live-streamed religious services, the web connects us with everyone. Internet access is a fundamental human right that is helping reduce the sense of alienation many people are facing in this pandemic.

An internet shutdown is a government’s imposed disablement of access to the internet over a period of time over a particular location by the service provider. Until two years ago, shutdowns were mainly enforced under Section 144 of the CrPC, which provided powers to the police and district magistrates to prevent illegal gatherings of individuals. However, in August 2017, the Union government promulgated Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 where the government is allowed to sanction an internet shutdown in the case of a public emergency.

Due to continuous disruptions and internet shutdowns, India now has a reputation of being the “internet shutdown capital of the world”[1] In the midst of protests, violence and dispute over India’s newly created Citizenship Amendment Act, authorities have shut down internet access in selected areas to control the situation as this parliamentary act has earned severe criticism from the legal fraternity, social activists and other public-spirited individuals in the country and globally from the United Nations and other international bodies.[2]

Also, the government has shut down the internet in Kashmir region for more than 100 days since the abrogation of Article 370 in order to curb violence.[3] Any prohibitory order should have a reasonable time of operation and after that, it should be discontinued[4].

Violation of Constitutional Provisions

Internet shutdown restricts the freedom of an individual to seek, receive and impart ideas and information of all kinds. It restricts an individual’s right to voice their opinion and receive information. It not only restricts freedom of speech and expression but also other ancillary rights flowing from it i.e. Art. 19(1) (g), which ensures the right to practice or to carry on any occupation, trade or business common.

The Constitution makers inscribed certain basic rights in Part III which inhere in every human being and which are essential for the unfolding and development of his full personality.[5] In furtherance to this, the right to carry on any occupation or business is one such right which is an essential right for the development of one’s personality and it cannot be taken away by law.[6]

The acts of suspending and shutting down internet services are wholly arbitrary in nature, unreasonable, unjust and are in violation of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the constitution of India under Article 19 and Article 21 of the Constitution.[7]

Recognition of the Internet as a Basic Human Right

In Faheema Shirin. R.K v.  State Of Kerala[8], the Supreme Court held that under the Article 21 of the Constitution of India, the right to have access to the Internet forms part of both the Right to Education and the Right to Privacy.

The above decision came in consequence of filing of a petition by a BA student of Sree Narayana College, Kozhikode. The rules of the hostel of the college did not allow girls to use their mobile phones for a certain duration and were also asked to deposit their mobile phones with the authorities. This hampered the students’ learning as they only had access to books kept in the library and could not access any information over the internet.

It was also reiterated in 2019 in the case of Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India[9] and Ghulam Nabi Azad v. Union of India that freedom of speech and expression over the medium of internet enjoys Constitutional protection under Article 19 (1) (a). Also, the right to access the internet is a Fundamental Right under Right to Education and Right to Privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.[10] Liberty of individual and protection of fundamental rights is the very essence of the democratic way of life adopted by the Constitution.[11]

The Hon’ble Supreme Court in Indibily Creative Pvt. Ltd. v. Govt. Of West Bengal[12] has held that internet shutdown is against the public order and amounts to the hijacking of the freedom guaranteed by Constitution of India as it creates instances of agitation and frustration and brings a change in the routine life of its users by restricting them to enjoy their rights in their maximum capacity.

The Mid Pandemic Digital Literacy Revolution

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the necessity of internet in our lives. From getting information to payments to staying updated with the deadly pandemic, everything has been digitized. Even amidst pandemic, technology enables some of us to stay within the safety of our homes, survive and even thrive.

The ability to steer through the digital path has become of supreme importance. Your quality of life now would largely depend on how well you are able to adapt and teach yourself the ways of the digitized world.

People from lower-income groups who do not have the luxury to obtain this necessity are bound to feel marginalized. They are unable to get access to health and welfare alerts, critical services, engage in upskilling or learning or take part in economic activities without potentially exposing themselves to the virus.

Assam shows the starkest inequality with 80% rich urban homes having internet access denied to 94% of those in the poorest rural homes.[13] In a survey done by National Statistical Organization, it was found that only one in ten households owns a laptop, tablet or computer and the National Capital has the highest access to the internet at 58%.[14]

Another problem that comes with this disparity is the lack of digital literacy. Only 40% of the population is said to have basic digital literacy, in the age group of 15-29.[15] This reflects the state of the economy and with this outbreak, thousands of students suddenly feel left out of all avenues of learning.

Suggestions

Such crucial times have proven the fact more than ever how deep-rooted the internet is in our lives and how the rich who have this essential luxury will be able to survive better. For the people to bridge the gap between technology and them, there are a few measures that the Government should implement-

  • Increase of internet connectivity in the most remote possible area across the country. This can be done by installing wireless technology, optical fibres and also by using drones and satellites.
  • Televisions and radios can also be used as the mode of communication as this is a common facility which can be availed by the majority.
  • For people who do not own their own smart devices, it becomes important to have a facility where they can access them, opening community centres at every corner is one such facility. This is to ensure that lack of devices does not exclude you from the digital space.
  • Initiatives like the Punjab government’s to distribute 1.75 lakh free smartphones to its students[16] should be duplicated. Subsidised smart devices and low-cost data packages should also be made available so the population feels more inclusive in this digitised economy.

Conclusion

With the rapid development in technology, it can be observed that internet has become a key means by which individuals can access their right to freedom of expression, which is a basic human right embedded under the provision of Indian constitution.

The pandemic has also graphically illustrated the importance of digital network and service platforms. However, there is a dark side too. The misinformation spreading through these channels is a cause of concern. The info emic that comes with these platforms is spreading at a faster pace compared to the pandemic but the platforms are making efforts to curb the spread of fake news by adding extra security and privacy encryption.


Author(s): Ruchika Baweja & Ayush Bhatia

Students, Nirma University


[1]Asmita Bakshi, India is the internet shutdown capital of the world, Mint, (Dec 8, 2019), Available Here

[2] Ashutosh Mishra, Citizenship Amendment Bill becomes Act after Presidential nod even as violence rips through Assam, India Today,  (Dec 13, 2019). Available Here

[3] Asmita Bakshi, From Article 370 abrogation to internet ban: How 2019 reshaped J&K, The New Indian Express, (Dec 28, 2019). Available Here

[4] Union of India v. S.B. Vohra, (2004) 1 S.C.R. 36 (India).

[5] Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, (1978) 2 S.C.R. 621(India).

[6]D.D. Basu, Commentary on the Constitution of India 2100 (Lexis Nexis Butterworths, 9th ed. 2015).

[7]Ehtesham Hashmi and Ors v. Union of India, (2013) 1 SCR 24 (India).

[8]Faheema Shirin.R.K v. State Of Kerala, W.P (C) No, 1031 of 2019(India).

[9]Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, W.P (C) No. 1164 of 2019(India).

[10]INDIA CONST. art. 21.

[11] Daryao v. State Of UP, AIR 1961 SC 1457(India).

[12]Indibily Creative Pvt. Ltd. v. Govt. Of West Bengal, W.P(C). No 306 of 2019(India).

[13]Priscilla Jebraj, Digital divide shadows post-pandemic education, The Hindu, (Sep 18 2020). Available Here

[14]ibid.

[15]ibid.

[16]IANS, Punjab CM launches ‘Smart Connect Scheme’, gives smartphones, The Times of India, (Aug 12, 2020), Available Here


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