India is a democratic country, but the standards for freedom of expression promised to us—online and offline—are highly questionable, especially with online content being censured and comedians being threatened to be arrested for sedition.
So the media criticism came as no surprise when India supported the amendments proposed by countries like China and Russia last week when the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution on the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet”.
According to some media reports, countries like Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, as well as democracies like South Africa and India, called for the UN to delete a passage in the resolution that ‘condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to our dissemination of information online’.”
India has also been struggling to draft a comprehensive privacy bill, and most recently came out with a geospatial information regulation bill that would establish ownership over all forms of location data.
However, the fact that the resolution was adopted without a vote (with oral revision)—as noted by the UNHRC—puts these news reports on a faulty ground. So technically, India did not ‘vote against’ the resolution. Moreover, none of the four amendments supported by India called for the deletion of a passage that condemned the prevention or disruption of Internet access and online information dissemination, as noted by the Centre for Internet and Society. Although, India flouts the said clause in spirit, back at home.
Out of the four amendments—L85-88 in the UNHRC resolution--the first amendment (L85) sought to include a reference to fighting against the exploitation of children online. This was withdrawn by Russia before it was considered by member states. L86 can truly be described as diluting language regarding freedom of expression online. L88 includes reference to hate speech, asks to introduce a new paragraph that states “Expresses its concern at the use of the Internet and information and communications technology to disseminate ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, and incitement to racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance.” This amendment was proposed by Belarus, China, Iran and the Russian Federation.
Considering that the Internet and other online media technologies are increasingly used for incitement and as a means of propagating intolerance and xenophobia in India and other Asian countries, the resolution does touch on an important issue. But it doesn’t seek to limit internet freedom particularly.