Internet freedom in India declined for a third straight year, as government authorities increasingly shut off connectivity to suppress anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, said a report.
The Freedom House report said spyware campaigns targeting human rights defenders added to the already restrictive environment for privacy.
“Meanwhile, both the CAA protests and the COVID-19 pandemic led to an information environment plagued by disinformation, often pushed by political leaders themselves. Within this environment, women, religious, and marginalized communities, in particular, experienced online harassment and trolling,” the report said.
The report said despite the Supreme Court establishing certain safeguards to be followed by the government before ordering internet shutdowns, India still registered to be home to more government-imposed internet shutdowns than anywhere else in the world.
The move was justified by authorities for reasons including the need to counter disinformation, protests, communal violence, and cheating on exams.
According to the report, more political, social, and cultural content was either removed or blocked for India-based users during the coverage period, including information on Twitter about Kashmir and criticism of the government on streaming platforms.
It also said government officials attempted to control the online narrative around the COVID-19 pandemic by issuing restrictions on reporting, arresting and detaining numerous people for their online speech. This also included, reportedly forcing users to remove content from their social media accounts.
According to the report, digital monitoring during the COVID-19 pandemic using apps, like Aarogya Setu, raised concerns over a lack of transparency, oversight, and other protections for fundamental freedoms.
The report found two separate coordinated spyware campaigns targeting journalists, activists, lawyers, and other human rights defenders.
However, internet penetration continues to improve in the country.
“However, inadequate infrastructure still remains an obstacle to access, especially in rural areas. Various governmental and non-governmental efforts to improve access nationwide are underway. Information and communication technology (ICT) shutdowns ordered by local authorities continued to increase in duration and frequency during the coverage period, positioning the country to be the global leader in connectivity restrictions,” it said.
When compared to urban areas, internet penetration is significantly lower in rural areas with only 30 internet subscribers per 100 population, compared with 106 per 100 in urban areas.