Speaking to students at Cambridge University earlier this month, Julian Assange, Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks, offered an important insight: “while the Internet has in some ways an ability to let us know to an unprecedented level what government is doing … it is also the greatest spying machine the world has ever seen.” Now, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has cautioned against the Net coming under a regime of espionage and censorship in various countries, negating its potential for good. These warnings underscore the rising importance of the world's biggest public network and the need for the people to ensure that it remains truly free and open, unimpeded by official controls, technological discrimination, and cost barriers. The digital natives who inhabit the world look upon unrestricted, good quality access to the Internet as a fundamental right. Indeed, some progressive countries have initiated action to legislate such an entitlement. Finland became a model state last year by making broadband connectivity a legal right. There is a message here for India, which brings up the rear among fast-growing countries when it comes to high-speed Internet connectivity. After setting ambitious targets, it has taken weak, jagged steps to improve broadband coverage, particularly in rural areas. The target is to provide high bandwidth connections to 160 million households by 2014, but this involves a steep climb — the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India says only about 10 million were connected at the end of 2010.
Physical access to the Internet is crucial, but as Mr. Assange and Mr. Berners-Lee emphasise, the more complex issue is one of official controls. India put in place the Information Technology Act, 2000 and amended it subsequently in a bid to address public and industry concerns. But the law is still founded on the principle of executive control of online publication, rather than judicial due process. The amended Act has drawn criticism from advocates of free speech and data protection for its over-broad sweep and poor legislative clarity. This law must be rewritten in plain language and the fundamental right of free speech protected without dodges and equivocation. The more odious provisions enabling pre-censorship must go, and generic descriptions that serve as definitions of infringements need to be replaced with specific ones. India also needs a data protection law that restricts access to personal data collected and held by government. The Internet era is all about sharing and enabling people to express themselves freely. The imperative is to specify just what governments are allowed to do — and prevent them from exercising Orwellian control.