When the Supreme Court made ‘access to the internet’ a fundamental right, it was a formidable leap in the right direction. When the Union government announced its ‘Digital India’ vision, it was another significant step forward. As we rapidly scale internet penetration across the country, we need cybersecurity governance measures and other safety nets in place to empower all Indians to study, work, connect, and perform activities of daily living online.
As the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, states, “As the web reshapes our world, we have a responsibility to make sure it is recognised as a human right and built for the public good.” The new India Internet Governance Forum (IIGF) aims to do just that. The IIGF will be the guiding light to establish safe internet practices, governance, and digital inclusion.
The IIGF is a remarkable milestone in India’s history. India announced the Internet Governance Forum earlier this year. Modelled on the principles laid down by the UN, IIGF is a multi-stakeholder platform that brings together the government, industry, academia, NGOs, and other stakeholders to drive policies to offer safe and accessible internet for all. This year’s theme is ‘Inclusive Internet for Digital India.’ It is a necessary step to offer more inclusive and accessible internet for every Indian—regardless of gender, level of disability, or economic status.
Rajeev Chandrashekhar, the minister of state for electronics and IT, also recently reaffirmed IIGF’s commitment.
According to the ITU, there is a global gender gap when it comes to using the internet. There are 3.7 billion unconnected people in the world, and the majority of them are women and girls. This demographic uses the internet 12.5% less than men and boys. In India, a report by IAMAI-Kantar found that the majority of India’s internet users were male (58%). Understanding and empowering greater gender inclusivity is a key priority for the IIGF.
Additionally, the IIGF is also committed to advancing the cause of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Accessibility for persons with disabilities. According to UNESCO, at least 15% of the world’s population is living with some kind of disability. In India, estimates vary from 30 million to over 150 million individuals living with some form of disability (India Census Data, World Bank). Unfortunately, many platforms do not design their technologies with users with disabilities in mind, which puts them at a huge disadvantage. For example, a LIRNEAsia report on ICT access found that in Sri Lanka, due to their disability, 57% of survey respondents opted not to have a mobile phone.
Among the persons with disabilities surveyed, only 25% had smartphones. Even within this segment, females with disabilities were a minor fraction.
India and other countries also face similar issues where individuals with disabilities may self-select out of owning enabling technology if they are not designed to meet international accessibility standards. A 2016 study by the Center for Internet and Society (CIS) found that many of the popular privately-owned marketplace apps were not fully compliant with universal design standards.
India’s Assistive Technology (AT) device market is at a nascent stage, and with support from IIGF, industry leaders, and government policies, we can improve the lives of many people with disabilities by encouraging more manufacturers of AT to ‘Make in India’ for the world. According to Prateek Madhav, AssisTech Foundation (ATF) founder, “India is poised to become probably the world’s best assistive technology ecosystem. Over 70 percent of people with disabilities live in rural India. The technology we are developing in the country scores on two fronts—accessibility in their language and affordability”.
Another great divide that the IIGF plans to address is between urban and rural populations. The IAMAI-Kantar report found that internet penetration in urban areas is double that in rural regions. The IIGF will facilitate essential discussions around public policies that govern the internet in India, including the upliftment of rural and remote communities through internet access.
The internet sustains us, but it also has a dark side. Cybercrime, cybersecurity breaches, fraud, cyberbullying, and the targeting of vulnerable people like children is ever-present. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that cybercrimes in India rose by 11.8% in 2020 compared to the previous year. 60% of cyber crimes reported were for fraud. Robust policies, governance frameworks, and legal consequences for crimes must be discussed and implemented.
One single agency cannot be responsible for safety on the internet. It will need a multi-stakeholder approach. Public and private sectors, and consumers must come together and fight to keep the internet a safe space for all—including marginalised and vulnerable groups.
With inputs from Chandana Bala and Abhijit Panicker.
Honorary fellow, IET (London), and president, Broadband India Forum Views are personal