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Civil Society Organisations and Internet Governance in India - Open Review

This is a book section written for the third volume (2000-2010) of the Asia Internet History series edited by Prof. Kilnam Chon. The pre-publication text of the section is being shared here to invite suggestions for addition and modification. Please share your comments via email sent to raw[at]cis-india[dot]org with 'Civil Society Organisations and Internet Governance in India - Comments' as the subject line. This text is published under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.


You are most welcome to read the pre-publication drafts of other sections of the Asia Internet History Vol. 3, and share your comments:


Early Days

The overarching context of development interventions and rights-based approaches have shaped the space of civil society organizations working on the topics of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and Internet governance in India. Early members of this space came from diverse backgrounds. Satish Babu was working with the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies (SIFFS) in mid-1990s, when he set up a public mailing list called 'FishNet,' connected to Internet via the IndiaLink email network, (then) run by India Social Institute to inter-connect development practitioners in India. He went on to become the President of Computer Society of India during 2012-2013; and co-founded Society for Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment (SPACE) in 2003, where he served as the Executive Secretary during 2003-2010 [Wikipedia 2015]. Anita Gurumurthy, Executive Director of IT for Change and one of the key actors from Indian civil society organizations to take part in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process, had previously worked extensively on topics related to public health and women's rights [ITfC b], which deeply shaped the perspectives she and IT for Change have brought into the Internet governance sphere, globally as well as nationally [Gurumurthy 2001]. Arun Mehta initiated a mailing list titled 'India-GII' in 2002 to discuss 'India's bumpy progress on the global infohighway' [India-GII 2005]. This list played a critical role in curating an early community of non-governmental actors interested in the topics of telecommunication policy, spectrum licensing, Internet governance, and consumer and communication rights. As Frederick Noronha documents, the mailing list culture grew slowly in India during the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, they had a great impact in organizing early online communities, sometimes grouped around a topical focus, sometimes functioning as a bridge among family members living abroad, and sometimes curating place-specific groups [Noronha 2002].

The inaugural conference of the Free Software Foundation of India [FSFI] in Thiruvananthapuram, on 20 July 2001, galvanized the Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) community in India. The conference was titled 'Freedom First,' and Richard Stallman was invited as the chief guest. It was a vital gathering of actors from civil society organizations, software businesses, academia, and media, as well as the Secretary of the Department of Information Technology, Government of Kerala (the state where the conference was held). The conference laid the basis for sustained collaborations between the free software community, civil society organizations, emerging software firms in the state, and the Government of Kerala for the years to come. Two early initiatives that brought together free software developers and state government agencies were the Kerala Trasportation Project and the IT@School project, which not only were awarded to firms promoting use of FLOSS in electronic governance project, but facilitated a wider public dialogue regarding the need think critically about the making of information society in India [Kumar 2007]. The inter-connected communities and overlapping practices of the FLOSS groups, civil society organizations involved in ICT for Development initiatives, telecommunication policy analysts and advocates, and legal-administrative concerns regarding life in the information society – from digital security and privacy, to freedom of online expressions, to transparency in electronic governance infrastructures – have, hence, continued to shape the civil society space in India studying, discussing, responding, and co-shaping policies and practices around governance of Internet in India.


Key Organizations

IT for Change was established in 2000, in Bengaluru, as a non-governmental organization that 'works for the innovative and effective use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to promote socio-economic change in the global South, from an equity, social justice and gender equality point of view' [ITfC]. It has since made important contributions in the field of ICTs for Development, especially in integrating earlier communication rights practices organised around old media forms with newer possibilities of production and distribution of electronic content using digital media and Internet [ITfC e], and in that of Internet governance, especially through their participation in the WSIS and Internet Governance Forum (IGF) processes and by co-shaping the global Souther discourse of the subject [ITfC d]. It has also done significant works in the area of women's rights in the information society, and have been a core partner in a multi-country feminist action research project on using digital media to enhance the citizenship rights and experiences of marginalized women in India, Brazil, and South Africa [ITfC c]. IT for Change has co-led the formation of Just Net Coalition in February 2014 [JNC].

Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) was founded by Osama Manzar, in New Delhi in 2002, with a 'deep understanding that marginalised communities living in socio-economic backwardness and information poverty can be empowered to improve their lives almost on their own, simply by providing them access to information and knowledge using digital tools' [DEF c]. DEF has contributed to setting up Community Information Resource Centres across 19 states and 53 districts in India, with computers, printers, scanners, and Internet connectivity [DEF]. DEF organises one of the biggest competitions in Asia to identify, foreground, and honour significant contributions in the area of ICT for Development [DEF d]. This annual competition series, titled 'Manthan Award' (Translation: 'manthan' means 'churning' in Sanskrit), started in 2004. It has alllowed DEF to create a detailed database of ICT for Development activities and actors in the South Asia and Asia Pacific region. Since 2011, DEF has started working with Association for Progressive Communications on a project titled 'Internet Rights' to take forward the agenda of 'internet access for all' in India [DEF b].

The Society for Knowledge Commons was formed in New Delhi 2007 by 'scientists, technologists, researchers, and activists to leverage the tremendous potential of the ‘collaborative innovation’ model for knowledge generation that has lead to the growth of the Free and Open Source Software community (FOSS) around the world' [Society for Knowledge Commons]. It has championed integration of FOSS into public sector operations in India – from electronic governance systems to use of softwares in educational institutes – and has made continuous interventions on Internet governance issues from the perspective of the critical importance of shared knowledge properties and practices for a more democratic information society. It is a part of the Free Software Movement of India [FSMI], an alliance of Indian organizations involved in advocating awareness and usage of FOSS, as well as a founding member of the Just Net Coalition [JNC].

The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) was established in Bengaluru in 2008 with a research and advocacy focus on topics of accessibility of digital content for differently-abled persons, FOSS and policies on intellectual property rights, open knowledge and Indic Wikipedia projects, digital security and privacy, freedom of expression and Internet governance, and socio-cultural and historical studies of Internet in India [CIS]. In one of the key early projects, CIS contributed to the making of web accessibility policy for government websites in India, which was being drafted by the Department of Information Technology, Government of India [CIS 2008]. In the following years it took part in the Internet Governance Forum summits; submitted responses and suggestions to various policies being introduced by the government, especially the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, National Identification Authority of India (NIA) Bill, 2010, and the Approach Paper for a Legislation on Privacy, 2010; produced a report on the state of open government data in India [Prakash 2011b], and undertook an extensive study on the experiences of the young people in Asia with Internet, digital media, and social change [Shah 2011].

Software Freedom Law Centre has undertaken research and advocacy interventions, since 2011, in the topics digital privacy, software patents, and cyber-surveillance [SFLC]. The Internet Democracy Project, an initiative of Point of View, has organised online and offline discussions, participated in global summits, and produced reports on the topics of freedom of expression, cyber security and human rights, and global Internet governance architecture since 2012 [IDP].

The first Internet Society chapter to be established in India was in Delhi. The chapter began in 2002, but went through a period of no activity before being revived in 2008 [Delhi]. The Chennai chapter started in 2007 [Chennai], the Kolkata one in 2009 [Kolkata], and the Bengaluru chapter came into existence in 2010 [Bangalore]. Asia Internet Symposium have been organised in India twice: 1) the Kolkata one, held on on 1 December 2014, focused on 'Internet and Human Rights: Empowering the Users,' and 2) the Chennai symposium, held on 2 December 2014, discussed 'India in the Open and Global Internet.' The newest Internet Society chapter in India is in the process of formation in Trivandrum [Trivandrum], led by the efforts of Satish Babu (mentioned above).


Global and National Events

The first World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) conference in Geneva, held on 10-12 December 2003, was not attended by many civil society organizations from India. Several Indian participants in the conference were part of the team of representatives from different global civil society organizations, like Digital Partners, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), and International Centre for New Media [ITU 2003]. Between the first and the second conference, the engagement with the WSIS process increased among Indian civil society organizations increased of the WSIS process, which was especially led by IT for Change. In early 2005, before the second Preparatory Committee meeting of the Tunis conference, it organized a discussion event titled 'Gender Perspectives on the Information Society: South Asia Pre-WSIS Seminar' in partnership with DAWN and the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, which was supported by UNIFEM and the UNDP Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme [Gurumurthy 2006]. In a separate note, Anita Gurumurthy and Parminder Jeet Singh of IT for Change have noted their experience as a South Asian civil society organization engaging with the WSIS process [Gurumurthy 2005]. The second WSIS conference in Tunis, held on 16-18 November 2005, however, neither saw any significant participation from Indian civil society organizations, except for Ambedkar Centre for Justice and Peace, Childline India Foundation / Child Helpline International, and IT for Change [ITU 2005]. This contrasted sharply with the over 60 delegates from various Indian government agencies taking part in the conference [ITU 2005].

Two important events took place in India in early 2005 that substantially contributed to the civil society discourses in India around information technology and its socio-legal implications and possibilities. The former is the conference titled 'Contested Commons, Trespassing Publics' organized by the Sarai programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Alternative Law Forum, and Public Service Broadcasting Trust, in Delhi on 6-8 January 2005. The conference attempted to look into the terms of intellectual property rights (IPR) debates from the perspectives of experiences in countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. It was based on the research carried out by the Sarai programme and Alternative Law Forum on contemporary realities of media production and distribution, and the ways in which law and legal instruments enter into the most intimate spheres of social and cultural life to operationalise the IPRs. The conference combined academic discussions with parallel demonstrations by media practitioners, and knowledge sharing by FLOSS communities [Sarai 2005]. The latter event is the first of the Asia Source workshop that took place in Bengaluru during 28 January - 4 February 2005 . It brought together more than 100 representatives from South and South-East Asian civil society organizations and technology practitioners working with them, along with several leading practitioners from Africa, Europe, North America, and Latin America, to promote adoption and usage of FLOSS across the developmental sector in the region. The workshop was organized by Mahiti (Bengaluru) and Tactical Technology Collective (Amsterdam), with intellectual and practical support from an advisory group of representatives from FLOSS communities and civil society organizations, and financial support from Hivos, the Open Society Institute, and International Open Source Network [Asia Source].

While the participation of representatives from Indian civil society organizations at the IGFs in Athens (2006) and Rio de Janeiro (2007) was minimal, the IGF Hyderabad, held on 3-6 December 2008, provided a great opportunity for Indian civil society actors to participate in and familiarize themselves with the global Internet governance process. Apart from various professionals, especially lawyers, who attended the Hyderabad conference as individuals, the leading civil society organizations participating in the event included: Ambedkar Center for Justice and Peace, Centre for Internet and Society, Centre for Science, Development and Media Studies, Digital Empowerment Foundation, Internet Society Chennai chapter, IT for Change, and Mahiti. The non-governmental participants from India at the event, however, were predominantly from private companies and academic institutes [IGF 2008].

IT for Change made a critical intervention into the discourse of global Internet governance during the Hyderabad conference by bringing back the term 'enhanced cooperation,' as mentioned in the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society [ITU 2005 b]. At IGF Sharm El Sheikh, held during 15-18 November 2009, Parminder Jeet Singh of IT for Change explained:

[E]nhanced cooperation consists of two parts. One part is dedicated to creating globally applicable policy principles, and there is an injunction to the relevant organizations to create the conditions for doing that. And I have a feeling that the two parts of that process have been conflated into one. And getting reports from the relevant organizations is going on, but we are not able to go forward to create a process which addresses the primary purpose of enhanced cooperation, which was to create globally applicable public policy principles and the proof of that is that I don't see any development of globally applicable public policy principles, which remains a very important need. [IGF 2009]

This foregrounding of the principle of 'enhanced cooperation' have since substantially contributed to rethinking not only the global Internet governance mechanisms and its reconfigurations, but also the Indian government's perspectives towards the same. It eventually led to the proposal made by a representative of Government of India at the UN General Assembly session on 26 October 2011 regarding the establishment of a UN Committee for Internet-Related Policies [Singh 2011].


Internet Policies and Censorship

One of the earliest instances of censorship of online content in India is the blocking of several websites offering Voice over IP (VoIP) softwares, which can be downloaded to make low-cost international calls, during late 1990s. The India-GII mailing list initiated by Arun Mehta, as mentioned above, started almost as a response to this blocking move by Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL), the government-owned Internet Service Provider (ISP). Additionally, Mehta filed a case against VSNL for blocking these e-commerce websites, which might be identified as the first case of legal activism for Internet-related rights in India [India-GII 2001]. During the war between India and Pakistan during 1999, the Indian government instructed VSNL to block various Pakistani media websites, including that of Dawn. Like in the case of websites offering VoIP services, this blocking did not involve direct intervention with the websites concerned but only the ability of Indian users to access them [Tanna 2004]. The first well-known case of the Government of India blocking digital content for political reasons occurred in 2003, when a mailing list titled 'Kynhun' was banned. Department of Telecommunications instructed all the But the previously deployed URL-blocking strategy did not work in the new situation of mailing lists. Blocking the URL of the group did not stop it from being used by members of the group to continue sharing email through it. Government of India then approached Yahoo directly to ensure that the mailing list is closed down, which Yahoo declined to implement. This resulted in imposing of a blanket blocking of all Yahoo Groups pages across ISPs in India during September 2003. By November, Yahoo decided to close down the mailing list, and the blanket blocking was repealed [Tanna 2004]. Further blocking of several blogs and websites continued through 2006 and 2007, where the government decided to work in collaboration with various platforms offering hosted blog and personal webpage services to remove access to specific sub-domains. In resistance to this series of blocking orders by the government, there emerged an important civil society campaign titled 'Bloggers Against Censorship' led by Bloggers Collective Group, a distributed network of bloggers from all across India [Bloggers 2006].

A few weeks after the IGF Hyderabad, the Government of India passed the Information Technology (Amendment) Act 2008 on 22 December 2008 [MoLaJ 2009], although it was notified and enforced much later on 27 October 2009 [MoCaIT 2009]. This amendment attempted to clarify various topics left under-defined in the Information Technology Act of 2000. However, as Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society noted, the casual usage of the term 'offensive content' in the amendment opened up serious threats of broad curbing of freedom of online expression under the justification that it caused 'annoyance' or 'inconvenience' [Prakash 2009]. The sections 66 and 67 of the amended Information Technology Act, which respectively address limits to online freedom of expression and legally acceptable monitoring of digital communication by government agencies, have since been severely protested against by civil society organizations across India for enabling a broad-brushed censorship and surveillance of the Internet in India. The section 66A has especially allowed the government to make a series of arrests of Internet users for posting and sharing 'offensive content' [Pahwa 2015].

In 2011, the Government of India introduced another critical piece of policy instrument for controlling online expressions – the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules, 2011 [MoCaIT 2011] – targeted at defining the functions of the intermediaries associated with Internet-related services and communication, and how they are to respond to government's directives towards taking down and temporary blocking of digital content. The draft Rules were published in early 2011 and comments were invited from the general public. One of the responses, submitted by Privacy India and the Centre for Internet and Society, explicitly highlighted the draconian implications of the (then) proposed rules:

This rule requires an intermediary to immediately take steps to remove access to information merely upon receiving a written request from “any authority mandated under the law”. Thus, for example, any authority can easily immunize itself from criticism on the internet by simply sending a written notice to the intermediary concerned. This is directly contrary to, and completely subverts the legislative intent expressed in Section 69B which lays down an elaborate procedure to be followed before any information can be lawfully blocked. [Prakash 2011]

The policy apparatus of controlling online expression in India took its full form by the beginning of the decade under study here. The 'chilling effect' of this apparatus was made insightfully evident by a study conducted by Rishabh Dara at the Centre for Internet and Society, where fake takedown notices (regarding existing digital content) were sent to 7 important Internet intermediaries operating in India, and their responses were studied. The results of this experiment demonstrated that:

[T]he Rules create uncertainty in the criteria and procedure for administering the takedown thereby inducing the intermediaries to err on the side of caution and over-comply with takedown notices in order to limit their liability; and as a result suppress legitimate expressions. Additionally, the Rules do not establish sufficient safeguards to prevent misuse and abuse of the takedown process to suppress legitimate expressions. [Dara 2012]



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Sumandro Chattapadhyay

As a Director at CIS, I co-lead the researchers@work programme, and engage with academic and policy research on data governance and digital economy. I can be reached at sumandro[at]cis-india[dot]org.