Explained: Requirement of Internet Ombudsman in Indian Democracy


Recently, the increasing interplay between the government, companies and citizens for big data has called for an Internet Ombudsman in a democratic polity.

Background: Right to Internet as a Fundamental Right

  • The right to access to the Internet can be rooted in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression which includes freedom to hold opinions without interference.
  • In January 2020, the Supreme Court has declared access to internet a fundamental right and a government cannot deprive the citizens of fundamental rights except under certain conditions explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.
  • In response to a plea against the suspension of internet services in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5 2019, a three-judge bench of the Court affirmed that the right to freedom of speech and expression, as guaranteed to all citizens under the first section of that article, covers the right to go online.

Role of Internet in a Society

  • The internet broadband and mobile Internet services are a lifeline to people in India from all walks of life as it is the main source of information and communication and access to social media.
  • The internet is very useful for people working in the technology-based gig economy such as thousands of delivery workers for Swiggy, Dunzo and Amazon and the cab drivers of Uber and Ola depend on the Internet for their livelihoods.
  • The internet is a mode of access to education for students who do courses and take exams online and it is important to facilitate the promotion and enjoyment of the right to education.
  • The Internet provides access to transport for millions of urban and rural people and it is also a mode to access to health care for those who avail of health services online.
  • The Internet is a means for business and occupation for thousands of small and individual-owned enterprises which sell their products and services online.

Government’s view on Internet Use in Democratic Polity

  • The government has the told the Supreme Court that Internet has emerged as a potent tool that can cause unimaginable disruption to the democratic polity.
  • The government is of the view that the rules to regulate social media intermediaries needed to be revised.
  • The Tamil Nadu government has argued that the social media should be more transparent and cooperative with the police for purposes of crime detection, national security, etc.
  • The Centre has said that the Internet had led to development, but it had also been a platform for spreading hate and fake news.

Concerns associated with Internet Use in a Democracy

  • Lack of Trust in a Triangular Relation: The interaction between the government, citizens and companies has led to the information asymmetry which has eroded the very spirit of democracy by limiting the unbiased communication of ideas. 
  • Use of Internet as means of control and surveillance: The governments and private companies are using the Internet as ‘a means of control and surveillance, extending from cases of fraud detection, storage and exchange of criminal and financial records to those of political surveillance and control’.
  • Lack of credibility of information available on internet: The citizens are prone to unfiltered information available on internet which can never add up to the real picture and recirculating them into the infantile world for greater chaos.
  • Re-tribalisation of Politics through Information Superhighways: The Information Superhighways in democracy are leading to “re-tribalisation” of politics in cabals and cocoons while deliberations are fast transforming into ‘consultations among computer systems’ where trust and security are illusions.
  • No Consent required for processing personal data by State and Private Players: The Personal Data Protection Bill allows State and private parties to process personal data without obtaining consent and such broad exemptions would not only open the floodgates for misuse but also reduce India’s prospects of entering into bilateral arrangements for law enforcement access.
  • Undue restriction on freedom of expression violative of International Law: The Human Rights Council of the United Nations noted with concern that the various forms of undue restriction on freedom of opinion and expression online, including where countries have manipulated or suppressed online expression in violation of international law.

Need for Internet Ombudsman in a Democracy

Data Control and Data Theft

  • The government insisted on affidavit in the top court that informational privacy or data privacy cannot be a fundamental right.
  • The national policy on data privacy of Individuals is yet to kick start which implies that the government is more interested in ‘control’ than ‘protection’ of data.
  • The India’s cybersecurity watchdog, CERT-In has reported a huge data theft of Facebook and Twitter users by malicious third party apps in 2019.

Private firms and elections

  • Exploitation of Electoral Process by Private Data players: The private data analytics companies have emerged to exploit the electoral process with the sole objective of customising political messaging.
  • Sharing of Personal Data of Individuals with third parties: The Omidyar Network India and Monitor Deloitte have reported that there are many private enterprises which routinely share the personal data of individuals with third parties including political organisations.
  • Unavailability of measures to tackle fake news through Election Laws: The present legal framework leaves the menaces such as propaganda and fake news, outside the ambit of election laws as they were framed in a time and space that was primitive when compared to contemporary technological advancements.

Regulation and independence

  • There should be a gatekeeper to balance appetites for technology, security and privacy as the gate keeper is for regulation, not surveillance and it is completely and genuinely independent.
  • An Internet ombudsman with experts on cyber and Internet laws, IT, data management, data science, data security, public administration and national security, and consciously involving eminent sections of civil society, can be an effective antidote to unregulated technological disruptions.

Way Forward

  • It is very important to understand the response of the governments, political parties and citizens towards new triangular interplay between data protection, privacy and a flow of information.
  • The regulatory regime of the internet had to be ramped up considering the ever-growing threats to individual rights and the nation’s integrity, sovereignty, and security.

Source: The Hindu

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