India 14th in Internet freedom

NEW DELHI: India figures at the 14th place out of 37 countries in a study of Internet freedom and constrains on this freedom.
In a new report on ‘Freedom of the Net 2011 – A global assessment of Internet and Digital Media’ by the international Freedom House, India had slipped by two points from 34 in 2009 to 36 in the assessment of the constraints placed on the digital media.

India stands at the sixth place among 18 countries which have been listed as ‘partly free’.

A total of eight countries headed by Estonia and the United States are in the list of ‘free’, while eleven countries figure in the list of ‘not free’. Pakistan is at the bottom of the list of ‘partly free‘. China, Cuba, Burma and Iran are at the bottom of the list, in that order.

The report says India has slipped by one point each since 2009 in ‘limits on content’ and ‘violations of user rights’. However, it maintains 12 points in the category of ‘obstacles to access.’

The report says that although India’s Internet penetration rate of less than 10 per cent is low by global standards, the country is nonetheless home to tens of millions of users and has become an important leader in the high-tech industry. Meanwhile, access to mobile phones has grown dramatically in recent years, with penetration reaching nearly 60 per cent of the population.

"In the past, instances of the central government and state officials seeking to control communication technologies and censor undesirable content were relatively rare and sporadic. However, since the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai which killed 171 people, the need, desire, and ability of the Indian government to monitor, censor, and control the communication sector have grown. Given the range of security threats facing the country, which also include a persistent Maoist insurgency, many Indians feel that the government should be allowed to monitor personal communications such as telephone calls, e-mail messages, and financial transactions. It is in this context that Parliament passed amendments to the Information Technology Act (ITA) in 2008. The changes came into effect in 2009 and have expanded the government’s censorship and monitoring capabilities."

It adds that "infrastructure limitations and cost considerations restrict access to the internet and other ICTs in India, though both infrastructure and bandwidth have improved in the last two years." Estimates on Internet penetration in India vary considerably.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported 61.3 million users as of 2009, while the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) found that about 77 million Indians had used the Internet at least once in their lifetimes. A spring 2010 survey by the New Delhi–based research and marketing firm Juxt resulted in an estimate of 51 million “active” Internet users, who had used the Internet at least once in the past year - Forty million urban and 11 million rural. Despite this confusion, most measurements put the overall Internet penetration rate at a rather low 5 to 8 percent of the population. There are signs that this figure is increasing, however, and one recent study predicted that the number of Indian users would reach 237 million in 2015, from a current estimate of 80 million.

Internet use among urbanites appears to be more evenly distributed across the country than several years ago, with the total number of users in towns of under 500,000 people exceeding the total number in the eight largest cities. IAMAI attributes this growth to the prevalence of cybercafes and government e-kiosk initiatives. The latter entail the creation of 100,000 local facilities that would include computers, printers, digital cameras, scanners, projection systems, and telemedicine equipment.

While many of India’s users access the internet via cybercafes, the share of urbanite users with home connections has increased to 53 per cent, according to one survey. This shift has been driven in part by greater and cheaper access to broadband service. For example, the state-owned ISP Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) provides entry-level DSL access at US$1 per month, and US$2 to US$5 per gigabyte for limited-usage plans.

Broadband penetration is very limited at 0.74 percent, particularly when compared with an overall teledensity rate of 52.74 perc ent. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), there were 8.7 million broadband connections in the country as of March 2010, an increase from 6.2 million a year earlier, and comprising over half of the internet subscriptions in the country.

India’s overall mobile-phone penetration figures are promising, with almost 60 percent of the population using mobile phones. The TRAI cited the total mobile subscriber base as almost 730 million by December 2010, more than double the 347 million users recorded by the ITU for 2008. Access to the internet through mobile phones has risen as well, apparently due to a series of inexpensive rate plans that service providers introduced in early 2010. Still, only a small percentage of mobile-phone users access the web on their devices.

According to IAMAI, an estimated 20 million people had such access in late 2010, up from 12 million in 2009. As of mid-2010, only the state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and MTNL offered third-generation (3G) mobile internet services, though several private providers were scheduled to launch 3G services by early 2011.
‘However, in August 2010 it was reported that the Home Ministry had asked the Department of Telecommunications to suspend newly introduced 3G mobile service and halt providers’ ongoing rollout of the technology, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir. The authorities apparently wanted time to develop the ability to intercept 3G communications in the volatile region’ the report says.

Short-message service (SMS), or text messaging, has been blocked periodically in Jammu and Kashmir. For example, it was suspended in April 2010 amid popular unrest, but the ban was revoked within days. On September 23, 2010, the Central government temporarily blocked mass text messages across India in anticipation of a court ruling on a hotly disputed place of worship in Ayodhya. Following the deferment of the verdict date, the ban was extended until September 30.

There are presently no blanket restrictions on accessing advanced web applications like the video-sharing site YouTube, the social-networking site Facebook, or the Twitter microblogging platform. Such sites are becoming increasingly important in India. According to Alexa, Facebook is the third most popular site, followed by YouTube at fifth, the social-networking site Orkut at eighth, and Twitter at tenth.

The report notes that "there has been no sustained government policy or strategy to block access to ICTs on a large scale, though blocks have been imposed sporadically during crises, such as the Kargil war with Pakistan in 1999. Attempts to filter content have mostly originated with state-level executive authorities, and with private individuals through court cases. However, government measures to institute administrative processes for removing certain content from the web, sometimes for fear they could incite violence, have become more common in recent years".

Pressure on private intermediaries to remove certain information in compliance with administrative censorship orders has increased since late 2009, with the implementation of the amended ITA. The revised law grants the MCIT authority to block Internet material that is perceived to endanger public order or national security, requires companies to have a designated employee to receive government blocking requests, and assigns up to seven years’ imprisonment for representatives of a wide range of private service providers—including ISPs, search engines, and cybercafes—if they fail to comply with government blocking requests.

While there is no publicly available list of officially blocked websites, no politically oriented website is believed to have been blocked during the reporting period, the report notes.

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