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When I was growing up in India we lived in a semi-socialist, planned economy. “Semi-socialist” because India always had a private sector, and essentially unshaken patterns of inherited privilege and oppression. “Planned” because we had five-year plans and the Government controlled “the commanding heights of the economy.” One such height being telecommunications.
So, Indian telecommunications were awful when I grew up. We only had landlines. Landlines were scarce (there could be a ten-year waiting period), expensive, and frequently functioned badly (wrong numbers = incorrect connections) when they functioned at all (often not). This reflected a broader media space where the only television station was run by the government, and where print media was an oligopoly.
The country started to open up in the 1980s and 30 years later the economy is utterly different – as is the media landscape. One of the things that changed most profoundly was telecomunications with over 900 current satellite channels and a competitive market for mobile phone access.
Landlines continue to be painful, but:
Internet usage in the country has exceeded half a billion people for first time, pegged at 566 million, driven by rural internet growth and usage.
In its ICUBE 2018 report that tracks digital adoption and usage trends in India, it noted that the number of internet users in India has registered an annual growth of 18 percent and is estimated at 566 million as of December 2018, a 40 percent overall internet penetration, it observed….
The report found that 97 percent of users use mobile phone as one of the devices to access internet.
While internet users grew by 7 percent in urban India, reaching 315 million users in 2018, digital adoption is now being propelled by rural India, registering a 35 percent growth in internet users over the past year.
It is now estimated that there are 251 million internet users in rural India, and this is expected to reach 290 million by the end of 2019, the report said.
From the Medianama on mobile usage in India:
68% used smartphones to get their online news, 31% used only mobile devices for accessing online news; these numbers are markedly higher than in developing markets like Brazil and Turkey…
Respondents had low trust in news overall (36%) and even the news they personally used (39%), but expressed higher levels of trust in news in search (45%) and social media (34%) than respondents in other countries. “Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum have similar levels of trust in the news, whereas non-partisans have lower levels,” states the study….
An “overwhelming majority” of respondents access online news via platforms. 31% of the surveyed use Search and 24% used social media to access new online. Only 18% considered direct access their main way of getting news online….
57% of the respondents were worried whether online news they come across was real or fake, and half of the respondents expressed concern over hyper-partisan content, poor journalism, and false news.
Its worth noting that the concern over disinformation and false news are similar across all the survey’s respondents regardless of which party they supported. 2/3rd of the respondents felt that publishers, platforms, and/or the government should do more to address disinformation problems.
What I get from that is: more people than before are accessing news, they are getting it via channels which are harder for the Government to control (especially for people under 35, who comprise >60% of the Indian population), but the downside of this is that the quality and accuracy of the news they consume is hard to guarantee.
All of this is part of a broader transition where the economy as a whole benefits from, but also becomes more dependent on, telecomunications/the internet — a trend which is likely to continue.
When the Government wants to control the news (and limit fake news) it now has to do more than close a newspaper or a television channel — it needs to deal with social media and the internet.
Uttar Pradesh Police has detained 113 people for allegedly trying to vitiate atmosphere through their social media posts, following violent protests against the amended Citizenship Act in the state.
“State police has lodged 18 FIRs and detained 113 people, including 28 in Mau, (since Monday) for trying to vitiate atmosphere by their posts through different mediums of social media”, an official statement issued here said.
“Legal action is underway against those detained,” it said.
Technology companies Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and open encyclopedia Wikimedia, have received the most content takedown requests from India, said UK-based technology research firm Comparitech…
India accounted for a third of the overall number of content removal requests received by Facebook. Since July 2013, India has sent about 70,815 content removal requests, Comparitech said….
Facebook’s transparency report shows that takedown requests by India are at an all-time high. It restricted 17,700 pieces of content in the July-December 2018 period. Data for 2019 is not available yet.
Facebook said in the report that it restricted access to content in India in response to legal requests from law enforcement agencies, court orders, and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
It added that restricted content was alleged to have violated Indian laws on the grounds listed under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and was primarily in the categories of hate speech, anti-religion content constituting incitement to violence, extremism, and anti-state content.
In recent years, various regional governments and authorities have displayed a growing tendency to simply switch off internet connectivity to contain social and political disturbances. It has already peaked this year.
In just the first seven months of 2018, there have been 92 such incidents across the country; in all of 2017, there were only 79, according to data from internetshutdowns.in. The website’s findings are based on data collected by New Delhi-based pro bono legal services firm Software Freedom Law Center.
Of course, that comes with a cost:
In a bid to thwart the misuse of social media platforms to disturb the peace during the protest against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), the Indian government is continuing to normalise Internet shutdown and suspending mobile communications for thousands of citizens. This, in turn, leaves the companies, who run their businesses specifically online, to suffer a heavy loss.
This long-term Internet shutdown is also causing other collateral damages. From 2012 to 2018, the Indian economy has lost around ₹ 21,336 crore due to several cases of Internet shutdown. A telecom operator claimed to incurs a minimum loss of ₹ 1.5 crores ($15 million) every day.
Rajan Matthews, director general at telecom industry body Cellular Operators Association of India — COAI, which represents the Indian telecom industry including big players like Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Reliance Jio — termed this instance to be a ‘conservative estimate’ and confirmed that each telecom company is currently making a loss of at least INR 1.5 Cr daily per state.
And that’s just the telecoms, it doesn’t take into account other companies that depend on internet access for their day-to-day functioning.
It’s disturbing that this option is starting to be more and more routine — Kashmir hasn’t had internet for almost five months — and that there’s a real sense that it can be taken in response to political opposition as much as to a genuine law-and-order issue.
So, I’m in a quandary. Despite believing in freedom of expression as an absolute good, I recognise that the assassin’s veto exists in India, and that this veto is in fact sometimes supported by the people. (Basically, around issues of religion or religious identity. India has been both proactive and consistent in banning things like The Satanic Verses or The Last Temptation of Christ.)
Freedom of expression has to be suppressed in some instances or there will be loss of life.
On the other hand, too loose an approach, and it becomes a “go-to” for the government of the day when dealing with political opposition. How to draw the line and enforce it?
What is the government’s duty, given the real world we inhabit, and what is ours?