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How Free Are We?

The state of freedom in a digital world

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta   |   Priya Kuriyan  |  

India stands at a unique juncture in its history with roughly half its population below the age of 25.

India is poised to become the country with the highest number of people on the planet in less than five years. Like the rest of its population, India's youth reflect the plurality of arguably the most diverse country on the globe. Despite attempts by the ruling dispensation to impose monolithic notions of "national unity", India's diversity remains one of its great strengths. Among the biggest challenges confronting the country's youth are a broken education system, lack of opportunities for decent jobs and abysmal public healthcare facilities. We are projected to provide the planet close to one out of five software engineers. However, certain demographers believe we are home to the world's most under-nourished, ill and illiterate in terms of sheer numbers; we have more mobile phones than usable toilets.

Young women and men in India understand that the flip side of diversity is the deep divisions and inequalities that exist. Divisions not only on the basis of age, gender and sexual orientation but also class, ethnicity, region, religion and---last, but not least---the most pernicious system of discrimination of them all, the caste system. Indian society was always iniquitous; it was the land of the opulent maharaja coexisting with the indigent. In recent years, however, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened and made India among the most unequal countries in the world. The youth cannot but be aware of these ugly aspects of the country they live in. But a majority of young India today realizes that they have particular advantages that the older generations did not have, the advantages that modern technology brings.

For the first time, in a country of 1.3 billion people, there are around one billion SIMs (subscriber identity modules). In other words, it is safe to assume that in most parts of urban India, there are more SIMs than human beings! There are roughly 700 million mobile phones and over a third of these are 'smart' and internet enabled. More Indians are using over-the-top services [content that is streamed directly to consumers over the internet, bypassing platforms that traditionally act as controllers of such content], such as WhatsApp, than the citizens of any other country. Facebook has more users in this country than anywhere else. The internet has transformed human society in ways few could have imagined even a decade and a half ago. But the internet was meant to be a 'universal commons' (like the air we breathe) that would not just inform but also educate and empower ordinary citizens. What has changed in the last 25 years is that the internet has come to be dominated by a few giant conglomerates who want to control what we read, hear and watch. These corporations are clubbed together under the acronym FAAAAN---Facebook (including WhatsApp), Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (the holding company of Google), Alibaba and Netflix.

For people in India, the biggest challenge while accessing the internet is to distinguish between truth and falsehood, factually authenticated information and fake news and even between misinformation and disinformation---information that is deliberately disseminated for political or commercial reasons despite being untrue, aka, propaganda. What roles do digital platforms play in shaping perceptions of freedom then? The right to free expression, which is enshrined as a fundamental right of every Indian citizen in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution is not an absolute right but circumscribed by the "reasonable" restrictions enumerated in Article 19(2). The problem simply is that "reasonable" means different things to different people. Who decides what is reasonable and what is not? The local cop or the inspector general of police? The magistrate in a lower court or the chief justice of India? The religious fanatic or the educator, who teaches the meaning of secularism to young people?

Young Indians must realize that, by law, hate speech that propagates intolerance among groups and communities is not freedom of expression. Its interpretation, of course, along with the reasonable restriction to the right to free speech, is up for debate. In recent months, the manner in which people have been lynched based on rumours circulated on WhatsApp groups is particularly horrific and deplorable. This is clearly a law and order problem; the law enforcement agencies seem ill-equipped to handle violent mobs. The problem is also the people who have access to this technology and are misusing it; the problem isn't the medium of communication but that which is being communicated. Don't shoot the messenger, fix the problem.

So, what indeed does freedom mean for young India? Freedom to be a citizen first and then a consumer? Freedom to be a player in the information age that promised more democracy, even if it means becoming prisoners of a dictatorial cartel? Freedom from mass surveillance and wide dissemination of fake news? Or freedom to support peoples' campaigns, whether it is students against authoritarianism or gun violence, women against patriarchy or Dalits and farmers coming together? The youth of India have become participants, players, shapers and movers of the digital age that has had (and will continue to have) a powerful impact on various freedoms---freedom of expression, the right to privacy, to vote freely, to live a decent life and provide a sustainable livelihood to the deprived and the destitute.

It is worth repeating the analogy about what information in the digital age signifies: The World Wide Web has become akin to a surgeon's scalpel that can heal and also kill. The sharp knife that can remove a diseased part of a human's body to make her healthy, or the scalpel that is misused to maim and murder. Young Indians in different walks of life have to constantly evaluate and negotiate both the power of information in strengthening freedom and the shocking threats to freedom, life and livelihoods. The relationship is a complex one---but then we are living in an increasingly complex world. At the same time, some things are simple and incontrovertible. The youth will determine the future.


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