Chapter Six: Continuous Attacks on Freedom of Speech

Even in the domain of 'Digital' the Covid-19 pandemic and the cruel toll it continues to take on millions in India remains the most important news. On 9th May, 2021, in the second chapter of TypeRight, we had outlined the devastating and fatal consequences of choosing a website as the primary instrument of allocating vaccines, in a country where the phrase 'digital divide' doesn't begin to describe the punishments suffered by many everyday for being poor. We also pointed out that the website is only available for access in the English language. A flood of reporting on the issue followed. Thankfully, the number of languages available on the website has been increased.

The very next day after the previous chapter of TypeRight was published, the Supreme Court of India while hearing a suo-motu petition expressed serious criticism about the government remaining oblivious to digital exclusion:

"Even in the villages, they have to get registered at a common centre. Is this practical? Policy makers must keep an ear to the ground. Look at the poor agricultural labourer from Jharkhand who went to Rajasthan. He has to go to a centre there?… You can certainly have registration, but how will you answer the digital divide? How do you answer the question about migrant labourers who have to go from one State to another?

A report in the Indian Express quotes the Solicitor General as saying: "Mehta said the online registration decision has been taken since vaccines are not unlimited and if walk-in is allowed there will be crowding."

"Vaccines are not unlimited" is one way to say that vaccines are insufficient. No country needs unlimited vaccines. They need adequate vaccines. In any event, this is quite a remarkable admission from the GoI- because there aren't enough vaccines, vaccines have been restricted to those who have access to internet. Vaccines are life saving. So is food and water. Tomorrow, if there isn't enough food and water, will that too be restricted to those who can go 'online'?

Regular readers will remember that on 9th May itself, we had also raised the matter of how the fact that only four people could be registered on the Cowin website was excluding people in rural and remote areas.

Last week, the Delhi High Court passed an order:

Speaking of food, it is another matter that Aadhaar+Ration Card+Digital India is failing to even get ration to people. The states doing the worst here are Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.

Over-reliance on Digital isn't just preventing people from getting vaccines, it is also preventing people from getting access to education. Long before universal access to tech has been ensured, resorting to tech as the first response to every crisis is a crisis in itself.

A report in the daily newspaper Prabhat Khabar notes that while Whatsapp has been made the primary vessel for delivery of education material in government schools, only 72308/217634 students are connected to Whatsapp.

Social Media meanwhile continues to do more harm than good. In the following story, a doctor practising in a tribal area shares that misinformation rife on social media is turning people against vaccines.

It is rather unfortunate that anti-vaccine propaganda even by prominent figures with millions of followers has gone unchecked and unpunished with one such individual even boasting that he is above the law and can not be arrested. What is the minimum that should be done to check such behaviour? A new study may have some answers.

In Nigeria however it is Twitter that has been 'de-platformed'. Access to twitter has been restricted and any attempt to bypass such restriction threatened with criminal prosecution. The Nigerian government resorted to this action after Twitter removed a tweet from its President inciting violence.

EU, US, Canada, UK, Ireland expressed strong condemnation of Nigerian government's actions.

Readers may remember that the Indian government has also been trying to intimidate Twitter after twitter flagged forged/fake media by multiple BJP leaders as 'Manipulated Media'. Countless users had taken to twitter wondering if Twitter would be banned in India too. The strong reaction by the international community may act as a deterrence against such a course of action.

It is however important to not forget that India's controversial IT Rules, under challenge before various courts, give the Indian government the power of a super-censor, not only against social media companies but also against practically any content on the internet- your blog, youtube channel, OTT services- Netflix etc. All this without the burden of giving any notice to the entity against whom such action is intended to be taken. DEF published a FAQ on one part of these rules.

India is the only democratic country in the world to have such a law. Recently, Twitter and Google have expressed their willingness to comply with this law. Whatsapp has however challenged their constitutionality before a court. You can read DEF's FAQ guide here

Meanwhile, two kinds of attacks on speech continue. Being forced to speak:

Being forced into silence:

Censoring legal speech is one problem, giving a free pass to patently illegal and violent speech is another. Facebook claims it is no longer going to give Politicians a free pass.

Most experts had one reaction to this- why so late? Facebook has in the past admitted responsibility for giving violence a free pass in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

We have been busy. Season two of DEF Dialogues is here.

Poonam is a Soochnapreneur with Digital Empowerment Foundation. She lives in a village in Alwar, Rajasthan. At DEF we believe that while listening to experts is important, listening to rural India in their own words and in their own voice is more important.

We are delighted to share that our work and our team continues to be celebrated across the world. Wah Story profiled our founder Osama Manzar. You can read the full profile here.

That's not all, our work was also profiled for a documentary trilogy aired on Swedish Television

DEF is one of the leaders in bringing the focus of digital to 'inclusion'. An important discussion on this featuring Osama Manzar, our founder:

Finally, content recommendation.

If we were to name one thing that is most drastically changing the world today and will determine the world's future, it would be Artificial Intelligence. This week, we recommend you move away from screens and read Kate Crawford's latest book- The Atlas of AI.

She argues that perhaps we need to move our focus away from asking- how do we make AI more ethical and less biased to- should we completely dump AI?

But if you would prefer a audio/video mode, here is a conversation with her on AI that we strongly recommend:

Until next week,

Stay safe, stay inclusive.

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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad

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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad

TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad, is a weekly conversational bulletin curated through the news and discussions on social media as well as what's happening on the ground. Through the eyes and ears of Digital Empowerment Foundation across rural India and global south, TypeRight aspires to focus on bringing the contextual relevance of digital technologies and developments on the society - both connected and unconnected.