India’s Latest National Security Dilemma: The Huawei Ban and NAM(O) 2.0

Over two weeks after the ban on Huawei was imposed by the United States on suspicions of facilitating espionage on behalf of China, the newly appointed Minister of Electronics and IT, Ravi Shankar Prasad acknowledged that there are ‘complex security concerns’ around the deployment of Huawei’s technology in India. His statement comes soon after the TRAI’s statement emphasizing the need to indigenize telecom infrastructure in the aftermath of the US ban on Huawei.

The Chinese tech giant has been at the centre of controversy even before May 16, when President Trump signed an Executive Order entitled ‘Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain’, declaring a national cybersecurity emergency, placing Huawei on the ‘Entity List’ of the US Department of Commerce under Supplement 4 to Part 744 of its  Export Administration Regulations. This implies that any US persons and corporate entities that continue to do business with Huawei would face heavy penalties that could potentially include criminal sanctions. Owing to the design of export control laws in the United States, the enforcement of the ban in the United States has extraterritorial effects. According to a Reuters report, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned allies of potential difficulties in sustained cooperation and data sharing with the United States if they continued to use Huawei equipment despite the ban.

Huawei in the United States

Criminal charges pending against Huawei in US courts include serious allegations of corporate espionage, bank fraud, theft of trade secrets and most importantly, conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701 et seq) (IEEPA) by export of telecommunications services provided by a US citizen to Iran without permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). It was on the grounds of violation of the IEEPA that the US successfully urged Canada to detain Huawei’s CFO, Meng Wanzhou, who is now awaiting potential extradition to the United States for prosecution for the crimes alleged against Huawei.

Some in the US national security community have even argued that this could potentially be an abuse of the President’s emergency powers under the IEEPA, the legislation that enables the US to‘financially asphyxiate targeted countries, entities or individuals’ that pose ‘any unusual and extraordinary threat’ to US national security interests. Others, based on Trump’s statement that saw Huawei being potentially included in a future trade deal with China, take the view that the ban is no more than a leveraging tool to get concessions from the Chinese Government. Yet more view it as a measure designed purely to protect US telecom industries from Chinese competition in the 5G race, to prevent the US from losing its edge in communications technologies.

A major reason for the rapid rise of Huawei on the global tech scene has been its competitive prices and convenient payment plans. Thanks to the ban, rival companies like Cicso, Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung do indeed, stand to gain significant advantages and grab bigger market shares, but their prices so far have not been able to compete with those offered by their Chinese counterparts.

Despite this ‘emergency’, a week after President Trump signed an Executive Order, the restrictions were eased by the US Department of Commerce to give American companies a 90 days window to adapt to the new restrictions. In the time that has passed, several tech companies have severed business ties with Huawei. Google was the first to respond, cutting off Huawei’s access to its Android platform, restricting existing users’ access to future security patches and updates. Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm, Xilinx, Broadcomm, Panasonic and British Chip manufacturer ARM soon followed suit, causing serious disruptions in the global ICT supply chain, especially in its smartphone manufacturing. However, the smart phone business is only a small part of Huawei’s overall products range. It is noteworthy that as on date, Huawei controls 28% of the global marketshare in telecom equipment. In the first quarter of 2019, Huawei surpassed Apple to become the world’s second largest manufacturer of smartphones. Much to the worry of American telcos, some forecasts indicate that China is expected to represent 40% of all global 5G connections by 2025.

Several reports indicate that Huawei had long been preparing for impending restrictions from the US Government. Reportedly, it is developing its own OS ‘Ark’ and has challenged the National Defence Authorization Act 2018, which bans US Government agencies from procuring products manufactured by Huawei or ZTE.

China’s Retaliation

Although Huawei’s founder and CEO, Ren Zhengfei has opposed retaliation by the Chinese Government against Apple or other American tech companies, it remains to be seen how China will respond in the ongoing trade tensions with the US. Some changes to set up a mechanism that allows for higher degree of protection to its own national security interests have already been introduced in Chinese cyber security law in response. China has also threatened the creation of a ‘sweeping blacklist of US firms’ in retaliation. Reports indicate that the export of rare earth minerals to China by the US could be the next frontier in these ‘hostilities’.

In addition, the Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe came out to explicitly state that Huawei was not part of its military, several Chinese officials have refuted US claims alleging that the decision to blacklist Huawei was unsupported by any evidence. Unsurprisingly though, Russia has rolled out the red carpet for Huawei, where it signed a deal to develop 5G infrastructure for Russian telecom provider MTS.

However, the most important piece of Chinese legislation for India to consider is the Chinese intelligence law passed in 2017 that makes it obligatory upon Chinese companies and other entities to share onshore and offshore data with the Government as and when called upon in the interest of national security.

Huawei in India

Some have argued that India would need to conclusively prove allegations of assisting the Chinese government in carrying out cyber espionage before taking any concrete steps to ban Huawei, otherwise India risks undermining its strategic autonomy and playing into the hands of the US. However, the argument seems focused exclusively on the rapid introduction and operationalization of 5G in India and ignores India’s previous run-ins with Huawei’s technology.

Telecom companies through the Cellular Operators Association of India have sought clarification from the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) on its stance qua usage of Huawei-manufactured equipment by telecom operators. Such a clarification is much needed, considering that Huawei has been kept on a see-saw since September 2018, when the US first started attempting to persuade allies to wall out Huawei in the 5G race. In India, Huawei was first excluded, then extended an invitation which was later rescinded. Huawei India’s CEO Jay Chen recently made a statement demanding a ‘level playing field’ for Huawei in the 5G trials, reiterating the request of the Chinese Government from December of last year.

Presently, telecom operators including Airtel and Vodafone use Huawei equipment in many of their circles in India. While the TRAI has highlighted the need for indigenizing of telecom infrastructure, the truth of the matter is that as on date, almost 60% of the Government’s telecom equipment, including especially that of BSNL is supplied by the Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei. This is despite the fact that BSNL’s allegations against Huawei of hacking into its networks were investigated in 2014. This makes the argument that requires conclusive proof of malicious activity difficult to sustain, if the security of the existing infrastructure has already been compromised in the past.

Huawei itself has urged the DoT for an expedited decision on its inclusion in the 5G trials, reportedly after having answered all queries posed to it by the DoT. The DoT appears divided on the issue – with one section that views it as an issue of not just technology, but also one of security with geopoilitcal ramifications, and the other seemingly inclined towards Huawei’s inclusion to maintain the competition and mitigate risks of relying on supplies from European vendors alone.

The New Berlin Wall and India’s Posturing

At the moment, India seems to have been caught in the middle of what has been dubbed as the New Cold War in tech–faced with prohibitively high prices on the one side, and a risk of Chinese cyber espionage on the other. On this point, some take the view that ‘what is cheap now may not be good in the long run’. National security choices require nations to make difficult trade-offs between economic and strategic goals and considerations, and the contours of the new ‘Great Powers’ relations are radically different to the one that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The New York Times viewed the ban as one that is “about much more than crippling one Chinese tech giant”, and is forcing “nations to make an agonizing choice: Which side of the new Berlin Wall do they want to live on?”

In the collision of tech and trade, foreign policy choices of Governments are now closely intertwined with the commercial interests and health of the domestic telecom and tech industries. Although it is reassuring that India’s telecom minister seems intent on taking ‘a serious look’ at the technological advantage versus security concerns calculus before deciding on Huawei’s inclusion in the upcoming 5G trials, remedial and mitigation measures like reviving MTNL and BSNL services are measures for the long run. However, what makes India the desired location for ‘proxy wars’ in tech is the treasure trove of data that lies beneath the massive subscriber base of over 1.19 billion individuals to telecom services. As for the health of domestic markets, if anything, Indian telecom giants like Reliance Jio that uses 4G equipment manufactured by Samsung, could potentially stand to gain from the move, if Huawei were to be excluded from the Indian market and the 5G trials. It remains to be seen whether such a protectionist measure, following the footsteps of the US, would be introduced by the new Government that has re-risen to power on the promise of strengthening national security. A legitimate concern is the threat of retaliatory pressure tactics from the US if India does fail to do so.

It is notable that India has taken some measures to avoid offending the United States’ declared policies, while the decision on Huawei remains pending. A week after the ban, India stopped importing oil from Iran as well as Venezuela to comply with US sanctions after the US ended exemptions for eight countries including India. More recently, the US revoked India’s preferential trade status under the GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) trade program, alleging that India has not “assured the US that it will provide equitable and reasonable access to its markets”. The US-China trade war presents a similar spectrum of choices to India – while the Ministry of Commerce is mulling over the imposition of ‘retaliatory tariffs’, others take the position that India should cut interest rates to take advantage of the trade war to gain a stronger foothold in both markets.

Against the backdrop of this new political economy of the cybersecurity industry, a new kind of non-alignment seems to be emerging, creating an unmistakable split in traditional alliances between NATO members. Only two of the ‘Five Eyes Alliance’ of intelligence sharing other than the United States – Australia and New Zealand responded quickly by banning Huawei in their respective national jurisdictions. Some European counties, specifically – the UK and Germany, while also remaining mindful of the risks posed by Chinese covert activity through its tech industry that has undeniably acquired a global influence, are seemingly intent on not abandoning Huawei in the design of their 5G infrastructure. Canada too, while juggling the pending extradition of Huawei’s CFO to the US, appears determined to make an independent decision on the 5G question. At the moment, India’s policies seem to just as non-aligned as those of Germany or the United Kingdom – aimed at maintaining the free flow of investments and information while steadily moving towards indigenization of ICT and expansion of markets instead of encouraging protectionism to curb competition.

Until such time that India can completely indigenize the equipment, or alter its telecom equipment procurement policies across the board to exclude obvious threats to the integrity of our cybersecurity infrastructure, India’s choice seems to be a limited to a cybersecurity policy along the lines of the Nehruvian-era doctrine of non-alignment, perhaps with only slight tilt— this time, toward the United States? It would appear that the time is ripe for NaMo 2.0 to revisit the doctrine as NAM 2.0, in a manner that allows India to preserve the security alliance with one side, and an economic partnership to avoid disruptions and price escalations in our ICT supply chain on the other. In other words, the need of the hour is ‘to effectively manage our global opportunities to maximize our choices’ while preserving strategic autonomy.

Advertisements

Transparency and Diversity in the 2017 MAG Renewal

Two days before the ongoing MAG meeting, the 2017 MAG renewal was announced. The CSCG protested the lack of civil society representatives among the new MAG members. This brought back focus on the need for MAG reform. Our report on multistakeholderism had identified the lack of transparency and geographic diversity in MAG selections. These issues remain relevant as another set of MAG meetings kick off in Geneva.

The Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was renewed for 2017 on Monday. The renewal has attracted controversy as no civil society members were added to this year’s MAG. The announcement has brought into focus a persistent criticism on the lack of transparency in the MAG nomination process. The lack of transparency and geographic diversity in the MAG was discussed in our report on multistakeholderism. Some of its findings are relevant to the 2017 MAG renewal.

Created on the recommendation of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), the MAG is responsible for organising the annual IGF. The MAG is not a decision-making body by design. But  Jeremy Malcolm  (pp. 420-422) points out  that the MAG effectively chooses issues that are debated on a global stage in the course of organising the IGF. In this respect, he argues that the MAG plays an important agenda setting role in internet governance.

MAG Nomination Process and Transparency

The make-up of the MAG is similar to the WGIG in that consists of representatives of all stakeholder groups (government, private sector, civil society and technical community). The selection of MAG members is made by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) under the authority of the UN Secretary General. Nominations to the UN DESA are made through focal points from different stakeholder groups, but applicants can also apply to the UN DESA directly.

As noted in our report (pp. 70-72), once nominations are sent to the UN DESA, there is no clarity on how members are selected to the MAG. The only available information on DESA’s selection criteria are the five criteria listed on the IGF website. These criteria include achieving a geographic and gender balance and that representatives should have strong linkages to their stakeholder groups.

The controversy in this year’s MAG renewal arose out of the lack of new civil society representation on the MAG. The Civil Society Coordination Group (CSCG), which is the focal point for civil society nominations wrote to the IGF secretariat asking it to reconsider its decision. They pointed out that no civil society members were added to the MAG this year despite two civil society members retiring from the MAG (members are selected for 3 year terms and a third of the MAG retires each year). The letter also called on the IGF secretariat to select an additional civil society member to the MAG.

This is not the first time that MAG nominations have been controversial. In 2016, the CSCG wrote to the IGF secretariat asking for greater transparency and inclusiveness in selections to the MAG. Similarly, as discussed in our report (p. 73), an Indian civil society member nominated by the CSCG was not selected to the MAG in 2014. In the above cases, the CSCG had contacted IGF secretariat asking for greater clarity on how selections were made.

Geographic Diversity

One of the findings of our report with respect to the MAG was on the geographic diversity of the group. As mentioned above, geographic diversity is one of the stated criteria based on which the UN DESA selects members to the MAG. Our report found that on average, 8-10% of MAG members were from the United States (based on their affiliation mentioned on the IGF website). As shown in the chart below, this was the highest percentage representation from any country between 2011 and 2015.

Membership by country as a percentage of total MAG Membership (2011-15)

us-igf-mag

Source: Multistakeholderism in Action

This trend has continued in the 2017 MAG renewal with 4 members or 7% of the MAG being from the United States. No other country has more than 2 members in the current MAG. The FAQ section on MAG renewals acknowledges this disparity. It stated that the MAG currently has an excess of members from Western Europe and Others Group. It also states that a new selection process will attempt to make the MAG more regionally balanced. It remains to be seen if this imbalance will be addressed in the next MAG renewal cycle.

The MAG nomination process raises questions on the transparency of the process and the diversity within the MAG. However, there is very little publicly available information or communication from the UN DESA beyond the criteria listed on the IGF website. The 2017 announcement was made one day before the IGF Open Consultations and MAG meeting were to begin in Geneva (1st March). A CSCG representative who circulated the letter believed that the issue of non-selection of a civil society member might be taken up at the meeting.

I&B Ministry forms Committee to regulate content in Government Advertising

Written By Joshita Pai

Following the direction by the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an order last month establishing a three member committee to effectuate the Supreme Court Guidelines on Content Regulation of Government Advertising. Government advertising refers to the use of public funds by ruling parties to project their achievements or make announcements about upcoming initiatives. These advertisements however, have occasionally been politically motivated, demonstrating the need for the guidelines issued by the Court in the Common Cause judgment. The guidelines were issued on the basis of a report submitted by a Court-appointed committee on the issue of use of public funds in government advertising.

According to the recent MIB order, the Supreme Court Guidelines will function as a stopgap arrangement until a legislation comes into force to regulate the content projected in government sponsored advertisements. The body set up by the Ministry will address complaints from the general public on violation of the guidelines prescribed by  the Court. The Committee will be assisted by a member secretary, and will be set up parallelly at the state level, appointed by the respective State Governments. The three member body will be responsible for implementation of the SC guidelines on regulating content in government advertising.

Government Advertising

Government advertising is often regarded as informative and in public interest since it facilitates circulation of necessary information with respect to upcoming welfare schemes or the progress of government initiatives. However, advertisements of this nature are often used gain political mileage. This practice has been criticized for several reasons, ranging from arbitrary use of public funds to non-objective presentation of information. Colourful presentation of information on the part of the government does not foster public interest. The right to freedom of speech and expression exercisable by the government is not dispensable but Article 19 also grants the right to information, and accurate information at that, which stands in equal measure. Balancing conflicting interests in this regard is a herculean task.

Government advertising, unlike political advertising which also often transcends permissible boundaries, is sponsored by the use of public funds that governments in power have access to. According to the Election Commission of India, the expenditure on government sponsored advertisements is incurred by the public exchequer and is contrary to the spirit of free and fair election, as the party in power gets an undue advantage over other parties and candidates. The practice has beckoned the need for an oversight authority and a set of workable standards to regulate such advertising, which have been recommended time and again, most recently in the Law Commission Report on Electoral Reforms. Moreover, the Election Commission too has assessed the mushrooming phenomenon of advertising by existing governments. In furtherance of these observations, the ECI recommended that advertisements for achievements of existing governments, either Central or State, in any manner, should be prohibited for a period of six months prior to the date of expiry of the term of the House.

The Guidelines issued by the Supreme Court     

The case that brought about the guidelines was set in motion when Common Cause and the Centre for Public Interest Litigation sought to restrain the Union of India and State Governments from using public funds on government advertising. The petitioners emphasized that the object of these advertisements is generally to promote functionaries and candidates of a political party. One of the primary objections raised in the case was that such advertising is generally politically motivated. The petition called for the Court to issue comprehensive guidelines on usage of public funds on such advertisements. Giving due weightage to the plea, the Court appointed a committee to examine best practices in order to demarcate permissible advertising during campaigning from politically motivated advertisements. The committee submitted its report to the Supreme Court in September 2014 which contained a set of guidelines on content regulation in government advertising. These guidelines will be implemented by the committee established by the MIB.  

According to the Guidelines, government advertising “includes any message, conveyed and paid for by the government for placement in media such as newspapers, television, radio, internet, cinema and such other media but does not include classified advertisements; and includes both copy (written text/audio) and creatives (visuals/video/multimedia) put out in print, electronic, outdoor or digital media.”

The guidelines further suggest that government advertisements should be politically neutral and should not include photographs of political leaders unless it is essential, in which case only the photographs of the Prime Minister/Chief Minister or President/Governor may be used.  The enforceability of the guidelines has been left to the three member body which shall recommend actions accordingly.

According to the Guidelines, regulation of content should be guided by five fundamental principles:

  1.  Advertising Campaigns to be related to Government responsibilities: The content of the government advertisement should be relevant to the government’s obligations and the rights of the citizens. 
  2. Advertisement materials should be presented in an objective, fair, and accessible manner and be designed to meet the objectives of the campaign: The content and the design of the advertisement should be executed after exercise of due care and should not present previous policies of the government as new ones.
  3. Advertisement materials should be objective and not directed at promoting political interests of ruling party: The advertisement should steer clear of making political arguments and should be neutral in nature and should not seek to influence public support.
  4. Advertisement Campaigns must be justified and undertaken in an efficient and cost-effective manner: Optimum use of public funds and cost-effective advertisements reflect a need-based advertising approach
  5. Government advertising must comply with legal requirements and financial regulations and procedures: The advertisements must be compliant with existing laws such as election laws and ownership rights.

Government advertisements are issued on several occasions. They are issued to present the completion of a successful tenure, to commemorate anniversaries of people and to announce public welfare projects. In these instances, the object of the advertisement can be achieved with objective presentation of information. The committee set up singularly seeks to ensure that the right of the government to use funds to sponsor advertisements is not misused.  

The New Dimension to the UIDAI Debate: The Aadhaar Bill, 2016

 

Written By Joshita Pai

The discourse around Aadhaar has only aggravated since its inception, and one of the primary contentions of the debate has been the lack of a statutory force behind the initiative. Amidst all the speculations, the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016 was introduced on 3rd of March as a money bill, on the grounds that subsidies and other benefits will be drawn from the Consolidated Fund of India. The Bill seeks to resolve the contention of the lack of a legislation backing Aadhaar. The Bill also allows for more schemes to be attached to Aadhaar in future. Presently, there are a handful of schemes attached to the Aadhaar which have been approved by the Supreme Court. The Bill is an ambitious task to provide a framework for operationalization of Aadhaar.

A Cursory Glimpse

The Bill, establishing the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) as the authority for the functionality of the Aadhaar process, provides for the conferment of an Aadhaar number, to every resident who submits her identity information. The Bill, in this context defines a resident in clause 2(5). Clause 2(n) provides that identity information includes biometric information and demographic information. Biometric information includes photograph, finger print, Iris scan, or such other biological attribute of an individual as may be specified by regulations. The demographic information includes information relating to name, date of birth, address and other relevant information of an individual specified by regulations but significantly excludes information about race, religion, caste, tribe, ethnicity, language, records of entitlement, income or medical history.

According to clause 9, an Aadhaar number shall not confer or be a proof of, citizenship or domicile The Bill also carries a provision which may require Aadhaar holders to update their biometric and geographic information. The inconsistency in predictability of biometric data of an individual has been a contentious issue but the object of the provision here is as mentioned, the continued accuracy of the information in the repository.

Dissecting the Clauses

The Bill elevates the existence of an Aadhaar number to a proof of identity by virtue of clause 4(3).

Chapter IV of the Bill establishes the UIDAI as a body corporate, consisting of a Chairperson, a CEO and two part-time members. The CEO of the Authority will not be below the rank of Additional Secretary to the Government and will be appointed by the Central Government. The chapter deals with functions of the members, grants by Central Government, accounts and audits, qualifications and enumerations of the members. The Authority is responsible for the establishment, operation and maintenance of the Central Identities Data Repository. Clause 49 provides that the members of the UIDAI will be deemed as public servants. Clause 50 provides that the Central Government is not empowered to issue directions pertaining to technical or administrative matters undertaken by the authority.

Clause 16 of the Bill places restrictions on the Chairperson and members of the UIDAI who have ceased to hold office. It bars them from accepting employment in any management or company, which has been associated with any work contracted by the UIDAI, for a period of three years after the expiry of their employment. Listing the functions of the UIDAI, clause 23 provides that the authority shall formulate policies, procedures for issuing Aadhaar numbers and for the performing authentication of the same. The Authority is designated to carve out regulations including process of collection of information, specify what includes biometric and geographic information. The specifications have been left open to the authority, including the appointment of an entity to operate the Central Identities Data Repository.

The Bill creates a Central Identities Data Repository [Clause 2(h)] which will be the centralized database containing all Aadhaar numbers and details thereto. It will also be responsible for authentication and verification of the information provided by Aadhaar holders, at the time of enrollment. The registration of Aadhaar, has been made voluntary by the force of the Court’s order in August, 2016.

In light of this, clause 7 of the Bill mandates that proof of Aadhaar number is  necessary for the receipt of certain subsidies, benefits and services. The clause carves out a potential exception to the effect that if an Aadhaar number is not assigned to an individual, an alternate means of identification shall be offered for delivery of benefits.

Enabling accessibility to the Aadhar process, clause 5 of the Bill provides for special measures for issuance of Aadhaar to senior citizens, children, persons with disability persons who do not have any permanent dwelling houses. The clause is inclusive in nature.

Chapter VII of the Bill deals with penalties and liabilities for several offences. Impersonation at the time of enrolment as well as impersonation for the purpose of changing the demographic information of an Aadhaar number holder, is punishable with imprisonment. Providing a heavy liability for companies, clause 43 states

Where an offence under this Act has been committed by a company, every person who at the time the offence was committed was in charge of, and was responsible to, the company for the conduct of the business of the company, as well as the company, shall be deemed to be guilty of the offence and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly.

A provision which stands out in the chapter listing out penalties is Clause 44. It reads as follows:

(1) Subject to the provisions of sub-section (2), the provisions of this Act shall apply also to any offence or contravention committed outside India by any person, irrespective of his nationality.

(2) For the purposes of sub-section (1), the provisions of this Act shall apply to any offence or contravention committed outside India by any person, if the act or conduct constituting the offence or contravention involves any data in the Central Identities Data Repository (5(f))

Privacy Provisions in the Bill

The statement of objects and reasons appended to the Bill states that it seeks to provide “for measures pertaining to security, privacy and confidentiality of information in possession or control of the Authority including information stored in the Central Identities Data Repository”. 

Chapter VI of the Bill is built around the protection of information by the Authority, collected through the enrolment process. The Bill qualifies biometric information collected and stored in electronic form, as “electronic record” and “sensitive personal data or information” within the meaning of the Information Technology Act, 2000. The distinction between core biometric information and biometric information has been visibly emphasized. Clause 29 imposes a restriction on sharing information and bars the use of core biometric information for any purpose other than for the generation of Aadhaar numbers and authentication.

Clause 28(3) reads

“The Authority shall take all necessary measures to ensure that the information in the possession or control of the Authority, including information stored in the Central Identities Data Repository, is secured and protected against access, use or disclosure not permitted under this Act or regulations made thereunder, and against accidental or intentional destruction, loss or damage.”

Clause 28(5) further provides that the Authority or its officers or employees or any agency which maintains the Central Identities Data Repository shall not, whether during his service or thereafter, reveal any information stored in the Central Identities Data Repository or authentication record to anyone.

The Bill provides for information privacy at the stage of enrollment. According to Clause 3(2), the enrolling agency, which is appointed by the UIDAI for collection of identity information is bound to inform the individual at the time of enrollment, details about (i) the manner in which information collected will be used, (ii) the right of accessibility of information at the hands of the individual and the (iii) the nature of recipients of the information.  The manner of communication of such information has been left open to specific regulations which will be prescribed by the UIDAI.

The Bill provides for authentication of Aadhaar number by a requesting entity in relation to his biometric information or demographic information. Clause 2(u) defines “requesting entity” to mean an agency or person that submits the Aadhaar number, and demographic information or biometric information, of an individual to the Central Identities Data Repository for authentication.

Clause 8(2) makes it mandatory for the entity requesting authentication to obtain consent from the person whose information is to be collected for such authentication. It requires the requesting entity to ensure that the identity information of an individual is only used for submission to the Central Identities Data Repository for authentication. The clause further provides that the Authority shall respond to an authentication query with a positive, negative or any other appropriate response sharing such identity information excluding any core biometric information.

With respect to identity information, clause 29(3) restricts the use of such information available with a requesting entity and states that the identity information will only be used for the purpose specified to the individual at the time of enrollment and only with the prior consent of the individual.  Clause 32 enables an Aadhar number holder to access her/his own information and also mandates that records of request of authentication of an individual, should be maintained.

The functions of the Authority include performing authentication of Aadhaar numbers, deactivation of Aadhaar numbers. Clause 23(m) empowers the Authority to specify, by regulations, various processes relating to data management, security protocols and other technology safeguards under this Act; The UIDAI, according to Clause 23(q) is also entrusted with the function of promoting research and development for advancement in biometrics and related areas, including usage of Aadhaar numbers through appropriate mechanisms;

Disclosure of Information

Envisaging an exception to the protection of information provisions, clause 33 allows for disclosure of information in certain instances. It provides that disclosure of information, including identity information or authentication records is permissible if made in pursuance of an order of a Court (at least District judge), or in the interest of National Security by an officer of the level of Joint Secretary or above. However, the Bill does not define national security and the term in itself is vague and overbroad. It provides that such a direction shall be reviewed by an oversight committee consisting of Cabinet Secretary and Secretaries of Legal Affairs and DeitY. The problems of third party independent oversight and the volume of requests remain as is the case with the oversight committee under the Blocking Rules and the Telegraph Rules. The provisio appended to clause further provides that the direction in the interest of national security shall lapse after the expiry of three months from the date of issue.

Clause 37 of the Bill enshrines a penal provision for unauthorized disclosure of any identity information collected in the course of enrollment or the authentication process. This provision speculates a penalty for individuals as well as companies who engage in unwarranted disclosure. The Bill imposes a penalty for unauthorized access to the repository (clause 38), for tampering with data on the repository (clause 39). Chapter VII further provides for punishment of a requesting entity for unauthorized use of identity information.

The Bill contains vital provisions in terms of requesting entity applying for authentication, access of identity information by an Aadhaar-number holder to introducing liabilities. However, a deeper glance shows that several regulations are yet to be prescribed and have been left open-ended. The actualization of a legislation should however, not be conceived as a satisfactory response to the yet to be heard struggle for determining privacy as a constitutional right.              

 Joshita Pai was a Fellow at the Centre for Communication Governance from 2015-2016

TRAI releases Regulations enforcing Net Neutrality, prohibits Differential Pricing

Written by Siddharth Manohar

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has come out with a set of regulations explicitly prohibiting differential pricing for data services in India.

3. Prohibition of discriminatory tariffs.— (1) No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.

(2) No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content

TRAI recently concluded a public consultation process regarding differential pricing in data services (resources). The consultation paper covered all differently-priced or zero-rated services offered through data. The process has witnessed tremendous public participation, with a spirited campaign by Internet activists (Savetheinternet.in) and a counter-campaign by Facebook where it garnered support through users by using the narrative of connecting those who have no access (https://www.facebook.com/savefreebasics).

CCG submitted a formal response as part of this process, which you can read here, and filed an additional counter-comment signed by ten different civil society and research organizations.

The consultation process also involved a public discussion on the questions raised, where the usual suspects were all present – telecom companies arguing for differential pricing, and internet activists against. Also present were startup- and user- representatives.

Facebook’s telecom partner for carrying the Free Basics platform in India —Reliance Communications — was then instructed by TRAI to put a hold on rolling out Free Basics until they came up with a clear position on differential pricing and net neutrality. The regulator later confirmed that they received a compliance report to this effect as well. Facebook had been aggressively pursuing its campaign to collect support in favour of its platform for the entire duration of the public consultation.

TRAI has clarified that these regulations ‘may’ be reviewed after a two year period, or at an earlier time as decided by the Authority. An exception to the prohibition has also been included, to account for emergency services and services offered during ‘times of grave public emergency’. An additional exception is that of closed networks which charge a special tariff for their usage.

[We will shortly update the piece with more analysis of the regulations] 

SC asks Centre how to regulate Sexually Exploitative Content on Social Media

Written by Siddharth Manohar

The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a petition to block websites of dominant social media platforms, on the ground that they were used to spread videos of gang rapes and to facilitate a market for child prostitution. The two Judge bench of Justices UU Lalit and Madan B Lokur reasoned that blocking these sites was not a feasible solution, as it would set a trend of blocking wide parts of internet access to solve specific problems with how it is used.

The decision is in light of a petition filed by Hyderabad-based NGO Prajwala, asking the Court to ban social media websites used to traffic children and put in place a mechanism to monitor the content circulated through mobile applications such as Whatsapp. The same bench had in April recognized the importance of regulating objectionable sexual material being circulated through social media applications. This was based on suo-motu cognizance of a letter addressed to the then Chief Justice of India HL Dattu, asking the Court to take action against those responsible for posting a video of an incident of gang rape on social media.

The Court has asked the Additional Solicitor General to look into why no action was taken against the social media platforms by the police who were dealing with the cases.  The Centre had earlier communicated that it is difficult to monitor content which is circulated through mobile phones, and even more so to find the culprit starting the process. Tracking the user becomes much easier, they said, when a computer is used in spreading the objectionable content.

The Court did however refer to the Central Government the important question of whether these social media platforms can be prosecuted for their role in spreading offensive material such as video recordings of rape and child pornography. The Court added that they would wait for a response from the Central Government before deciding what action ought to be taken in the matter.

Earlier orders in the matters can be accessed here, and here.

IT Ministry’s Response to Questions in Rajya Sabha (includes Blocking of Content, Net Neutrality, Amendments to IT Act, Website Accessibility)

The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology recently (8th May) provided answers to a number of questions (here and here), which were raised by the parliamentarians in the Rajya Sabha. We have extracted a set of 10 questions below, that deal with a number of issues including IAMAI’s role in blocking of content, Net Neutrality, proposals for amendment to the IT Act and accessibility of government website among others.

Question 1: (Monitoring and blocking of offensive online content) 

(a) Whether it is a fact that the Cyber Regulation Advisory Committee, in its meeting held on 5th September, 2014, has delegated the task of preparing a list of pornographic sites for blocking, to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), an industry organization.

(b) If so, the reasons for entrusting a private entity with a function that ought to be discharged by Government agencies in public interest; and

(c) The measures being taken by Government to enhance and strengthen the capacity and technical expertise of Government agencies for monitoring and blocking of offensive online content?

Answer:

(a) and (b) In Writ Petition in the matter of Kamlesh Vaswani vs. Union of India, the Hon’ble Supreme Court in its order dated 29.8.2014 directed that it would be appropriate if the Government places the copy of the writ petition and interlocutory applications before the Cyber Regulation Advisory Committee (CRAC), which has members from all sections of the Society including Government, Industry, Civil Society and Academy, for its consideration. The constitution of the Committee (CRAC) was revised and notified in Oct. 2010. The last CRAC meeting was held on 5th September 2014 to discuss issues relating to availability of pornography material on the Internet and filtering of the same by the service providers in the country. CRAC requested Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), an association of members from content providers to lead the effort as part of Social responsibility, to collect and maintain the repository of blacklisted pornography sites from various sources including list of child pornography sites maintained by other countries. Further, IAMAI was requested to set up help lines and web portal for reporting of such sites through Crowd sourcing mechanism. IAMAI would regularly provide the list of such sites to Government for further appropriate action. Similar approach is adopted by other countries like Australia, United Kingdom and Unites States of America, where the Governments are working with Non – Government Organizations (NGOs) to filter pornography sites.

(c) The filtering of web sites with obscene / objectionable content poses significant technical challenge. These websites keep on changing the names, domain addresses and hosting platforms from time to time making it difficult to filter or block such websites using technical tools available in the market. Further “https” websites with encrypted content are used to transmit the pornographic content which makes filtering difficult as the data is encrypted. Therefore, the tools provide filtering to a limited extent only. The tools, in the process may also filter genuine content and degrade the performance of systems.

To address the issues effectively, Government is in regular touch with Internet Service Providers to upgrade their infrastructure and technology to effectively address the shortcomings with regard to identifying and blocking encrypted websites /URLs. Further, Social Networking sites are monitored by the security agencies in order to check / remove objectionable contents from the web sites in consultation with Indian Computer Emergency Team (CERT-In) in accordance with the provisions of Information Technology Act, 2000. Government is in regular touch with Social Networking sites, having their offices in India, to disable objectionable contents at the source from their websites. Government has also initiated Research and Development programmes to deal with technical issues relating to encrypted communications from the point of monitoring and blocking.

Question 2: (Secure flow of public and private communications)

(a) The steps Government has taken or proposes to take to protect privacy and security of our citizens and elected leaders in view of recent global incidents of tapping of communications by US and UK agencies;

(b) Whether Government will control foreign agencies handling internal communications of our citizens and Government; and

(c) Whether Government will take initiative in this respect to bring together various Governments to ensure secure flow of public and private communications and protect exchange of communications of national interest among Government officials?

Answer:

(a) and (b) Sir, taking note of the disclosure by foreign media reports in June, 2013 about extensive electronic surveillance programmes deployed by the U.S. agencies to collect internet and telephony data, Government has expressed concerns over reported U.S. monitoring of internet traffic of India. Concerns with regard to violation of any of Indian laws relating to privacy of information of Indian citizens as well as intrusive data capture deployed against Indian citizens or Government infrastructure have been conveyed to the U.S. Government. In addition, the issue of U.S. cyber surveillance activities was discussed during the India-US Strategic Dialogue meeting held in New Delhi on 24 June 2013.

Government keeps on taking appropriate protective measures by way of an integrated approach with a series of legal, technical and administrative steps to ensure that necessary systems are in place to address the growing threat of cyber attacks. In this direction, Government has approved a framework for cyber security, including protection of critical sectors in country that envisages a multi-layered approach for ensuring defence-in-depth with clear demarcation of responsibilities among various agencies and departments. Government is also engaged with world community towards promoting the evolution of better international Internet governance-norms, through ongoing discussions at international fora.

(c) Government is promoting Indian players in the IT field to develop and offer Internet Services by having the servers located in India, in order to protect the interests and secrecy of communication of Indian citizens. Already Rediff and Indiatimes have set up Servers and accessories in the country to provide email and other services to Indian citizens.

Further, Government has notified email policy of Government of India on 19th Feb. 2015 to protect exchange of communications of National interest among Government officials. The policy mandates that only Government of India email service shall be used for official correspondence, the objective of the policy includes sensitizing the Government officials regarding protection of critical Government data and mandating the use of Government mail service for official communication. Government has also planned to install Secure & Dedicated Communication Network (SDCN) for Intra-Government Classified Communication.

Question 3: (Net Neutrality on the use of Internet)

(a) Whether TRAI has come out with a discussion paper on the use of internet particularly the Net Neutrality in the country

(b) If so, the details thereof

(c) Whether it is a fact that many people in the country are in favour of Net Neutrality and have given their comments to TRAI in this regard; and

(d) The stand of Government on Net Neutrality?

Answer:

(a) and (b) Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released a consultation paper on “Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top services” on 27th March, 2015 for inviting comments from various stakeholders. This consultation paper also covers the issues related to Net Neutrality. The last date for receiving comments and counter comments is 24th April, 2015 and 8th May, 2015 respectively. Further, this consultation paper is available on TRAI website http://www.trai.gov.in.

(c) TRAI has received a large number of comments (more than 10 Lakh) in response to the consultation paper on “Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top services”. This consultation paper also covers the issues related to Net Neutrality. These comments are uploaded in TRAI website http://www.trai.gov.in.

(d) Government notes with assurance the growth of internet in India and wide platform it has offered for innovation, investment and creativity. Government is committed to the fundamental principles and concept of net neutrality and strives for non-discriminatory access to Internet for all citizens of the country.
At present the issues pertaining to net neutrality are in consultation stage. Department of Telecommunications has constituted a committee in January, 2015 to examine various aspects of net neutrality and recommend overall policy and technical response to net neutrality. The committee has already held stakeholder consultation meetings with Over the Top (OTT) players, Telecom Service Providers/Internet Service Providers, Civil Society Member & Consumer groups, Multi stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) of Department of Electronics & Information Technology (DeitY) and various Associations/Industry bodies.
Based on the report of committee and TRAI recommendations Government will take a considered decision.

Question 4: (Resolving Net Neutrality Issue)

(a) How does Government proposes to address and resolve the Net Neutrality issue; and

(b) How does Government plans to ensure that telecom operators won”t pass on to the customers the burden of high spectrum price paid by them to the Government?

Answer:

(a) Government notes with assurance the growth of internet in India and wide platform it has offered for innovation, investment and creativity. Government is committed to the fundamental principles and concept of net neutrality and strives for non-discriminatory access to internet for all citizens of the country.

At present the issues pertaining to net neutrality are in consultation stage. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released a consultation paper on “Regulatory framework for Over-the-top services” on 27th March 2015. This consultation paper covers the views of the service providers and OTT providers and related issues including net neutrality. The last date for receiving comments and counter comments is 24th April, 2015 and 8th May, 2015 respectively.

Department of Telecommunications has constituted a committee in January,2015 to examine various aspects of net neutrality and recommend overall policy and technical response to net neutrality. The committee has already held stakeholder consultation meetings with Over the Top (OTT) players, Telecom Service Providers/Internet Service Providers, Civil Society Member & Consumer groups, Multi stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) of Department of Electronics & Information Technology (DeitY) and various Associations/Industry bodies.

Based on the report of committee and TRAI recommendations Government will take a considered decision.

(b) Tariff for telecom services falls under purview of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). As per the existing tariff framework, tariff for telecommunication access service is under forbearance except for National Roaming and Rural Fixed Line Services. The service providers have the flexibility to decide various tariff components for different service areas of their operation. Tariffs are offered by service providers taking into account several factors including input costs, level of competition and other commercial considerations.

Question 5: (Position on Net Neutrality)

Whether in view of the fact that a committee has been formed within the Ministry to evolve its position on Net Neutrality, Government would ensure that the position on Net Neutrality is discussed in the Parliament and with the public, the details thereof?

Answer:

Government notes with assurance the growth of internet in India and wide platform it has offered for innovation, investment and creativity. Government is committed to the fundamental principles and concept of net neutrality and strives for non-discriminatory access to Internet for all citizens of the country.
At present, the issues pertaining to net neutrality are in consultation stage. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released a consultation paper on “Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top services” on 27th March, 2015 for inviting comments from various stakeholders. This consultation paper also covers the issues related to Net Neutrality. The last date for receiving comments and counter comments is 24th April, 2015 and 8th May, 2015 respectively. Further, this consultation paper is available on TRAI website http://www.trai.gov.in.

Department of Telecommunications has constituted a committee in January, 2015 to examine various aspects of net neutrality and recommend overall policy and technical response to net neutrality. The committee has already held stakeholder consultation meetings with Over the Top (OTT) players, Telecom Service Providers/Internet Service Providers, Civil Society Member & Consumer groups, Multi stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) of Department of Electronics & Information Technology (DeitY) and various Associations/Industry bodies. The committee has been asked to submit its report by May, 2015 end.

Further, Statement on Calling Attention Notice by Sh. Derek O’ Brien Hon’ble MP, Rajya Sabha on ‘Issue of safeguarding Net Neutrality in the country’ was made by Hon’ble Minister of Communications & IT on 05.05.2015 and he replied on various queries, issues and aspects raised by Hon’ble Members of Rajya Sabha. (Copy of statement is annexed).

Based on the report of committee and TRAI recommendations Government will take a considered decision.

Question 6: (Amendment to IT Act, 2000)

(a) Whether Government is planning to amend the Information and Technology (IT) Act 2000 in the aftermath of the recent Supreme Court judgement that struck down Section 66A as unconstitutional, with a view to de-criminalize posting of offensive content on the Internet;

(b) If so, whether Government is planning to include procedural safeguards in such a provision to ensure that such provision is not misused by fundamentalist elements in Society to harass law-abiding citizens; and

(c) if so, the details thereof and if not, the reasons therefor?

Answer:

(a), (b) and (c) Presently, there is no proposal with the Government to amend the Information Technology (IT) Act 2000. However, Ministry of Home Affairs has constituted a Committee to examine the implications of the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s judgment quashing Section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000 and to suggest appropriate legal remedy to fill gaps in the legal regime, if any, in the wake of the aforesaid judgment.

Also, an Expert Committee under the Chairmanship of Shri T.K. Vishwanathan, former Secretary, Law Commission & Secretary General has been set up by Ministry of Home Affairs to study and examine the existing domestic cyber laws and International Cyber legislations and recommend a road map with measures and amendments to the present laws for consideration of the Government.
Further, in order to comprehensively address the issues of Cyber Crimes, Ministry of Home Affairs has set up an Expert Group consisting of Academicians and Professionals of repute to prepare a roadmap for effectively tackling the Cyber Crimes in the country and give suitable recommendations on all facets of cyber crime. The five-member Expert Study Group comprises of Dr. Rajat Moona, Director General Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC), Professor Balakrishnan, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, Dr. Gulshan Rai, then Director General Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (Cert-In), Professor Manindra Aggarwal, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur and Professor D. Dass, International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Bengaluru. Shri Kumar Alok, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs is the Convenor of the Expert Group. The Terms of Reference of the Expert Group are:

i) To prepare a Road Map for effectively tackling the Cyber Crime in the country and give suitable recommendations on all its facets.

ii) Recommend possible partnerships with Public and Private Sector, NGOs, International Bodies and International NGOs.

iii) Any other special measures / steps the Expert Group may like to recommend with regard to tackling Cyber Crimes.

Question 7: (Broadband penetration in the county)

(a) Whether it is a fact that our country is ranked below Bhutan and Sri Lanka in terms of broadband penetration and ranks 125th in the world for fixed broadband penetration;

(b) Whether Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has suggested that the multi-layered structure involved in the decision making for the sector needs to be overhauled;

(c) If so, the details thereof;

(d) Whether it is also a fact that TRAI has also suggested that the licence fee on the revenue earned from fixed line should be exempted for five years; and

(e) If so, the view of Government in this regard?

Answer:

(a) As per ‘The State of Broadband 2014: Broadband for All’ report, published by the Broadband Commission of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which was published in September 2014, the ranking of Bhutan, Sri Lanka and India with respect to Fixed Broadband penetration for 2013 are as under:

Fixed Broadband Penetration

                     (per 100 inhabitants)     Rank

Bhutan                       2.7                     108

Sri Lanka                    2.0                     115

India                            1.2                    125

(b) to (e) Telecom Regularity Authority of India (TRAI) in its recommendations “Delivering Broadband Quickly: What we need to do?”, dated 17.04.2015 has inter alia, recommended the following

(i) Overhauling of multi-layered structure involved in the decision making in respect to National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project

(ii) Exemption of the license fee on the revenues earned on fixed line Broadband for at least 5 years.

A committee has been constituted on 29.04.2015 in Department of Telecommunications to examine the TRAI recommendations.

Question 8: (Law with the concept of Net Neutrality)

(a) Whether Government is bringing a law with the concept of Net Neutrality for consumers; and

(b) if so, by when?

Answer:

(a) and (b) Government notes with assurance the growth of internet in India and wide platform it has offered for innovation, investment and creativity. Government is committed to the fundamental principles and concept of net neutrality and strives for non-discriminatory access to internet for all citizens of the country.
The issues pertaining to net neutrality are in consultative stage. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released a consultation paper on “Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top services” on 27th March, 2015 for inviting comments from various stakeholders. This consultation paper also covers the issues related to Net Neutrality. The last date for receiving comments and counter comments is 24th April, 2015 and 8th May, 2015 respectively.

Department of Telecommunications has constituted a committee in January, 2015 to examine various aspects of net neutrality and recommend overall policy and technical response to net neutrality. Committee has been asked to submit its report by May, 2015 end.

Based on the report of committee and TRAI recommendations Government will take a considered decision, in the best national interest.

Question 9: (Regulation of Over the Top services)

(a) The stand of Government in protection of Net Neutrality;

(b) Whether Government proposes to regulate Over-the-Top (OTT) services;

(c) The argument for and against for regulation of OTT services;

(d) The details of the growth of internet traffic and internet users over the years;

(e) The details of the revenue generated by different telecom companies over the years; and

(f) Whether the move to regulate OTT services will affect the growth of start-ups in the country?

Answer:

(a),(b),(c) & (f) Government notes with assurance the growth of internet in India and wide platform it has offered for innovation, investment and creativity. Government is committed to the fundamental principles and concept of net neutrality and strives for non-discriminatory access to internet for all citizens of the country.
At present the issues pertaining to net neutrality are in consultation stage. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) also has released a consultation paper on “Regulatory framework for Over-the-top services” on 27th March 2015 for inviting comments from various stakeholders. This consultation paper also covers the issues related to Net Neutrality. The last date for receiving comments and counter comments is 24th April, 2015 and 8th May, 2015 respectively. This consultation paper covers the views of the service providers and OTT providers and related issues including net neutrality.

The main arguments in favour of OTT regulation is loss of traditional revenues from data and voice to telecom service providers, telecom service providers are subjective to all licensing and regulatory conditions whereas the OTT providers are not subjected to similar restrictions and that large scale OTT service in traditional services could significantly hampered the TSPs investment capability and growth. The TSPs are insisting on ‘Same Service Same Rules’ to maintain regulatory balance.

The main argument against OTT regulation is that the OTT players offer services through internet provided by TSPs and the TSPs are paid for internet services consumed by end users and OTT service lead to increase data usages and revenue to TSPs.

Department of Telecommunications has constituted a committee to examine various aspects and recommend overall policy and technical response to net neutrality.
Based on the report of committee and TRAI recommendations Government will take a considered decision in the best national interest

(d) Details of Internet subscribers are as under

For the period ending      Dec-2013          Dec-2014 Internet subscribers (in Crores)

As per TRAI                       23.87                  26.74

As per IAMAI-IMRB report ‘Internet in India 2014’  > 30

(e) The trend of revenue from data usage from full mobility service (GSM+CDMA) segment is given below:

                       Quarter ending Revenue from data usage (in Rs. crore)

June 2013           3057.83

September 2013 3594.83

December 2013 4240.01

March 2014        4637.89

June 2014           5259.18

September 2014 5911.05

December 2014  6457.06

Question 10: (Government websites meeting international standards of web accessibility)

(a) Whether any survey has been conducted by Government regarding the number of Government websites that meet the international standards of web accessibility;

(b) if so, the details thereof;

(c) Whether it is a fact that in an accessibility survey conducted by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), not a single Government website was accessible; and

(d) The steps taken to improve web accessibility?

Answer:

(a) Yes, Sir.

(b) The Guidelines for Indian Government Websites (GIGW) have been adopted by the Department of Administrative Reforms & Public Grievances (DARPG) and have become a part of the Central Secretariat Manual of Office Procedure (CSMOP). The GIGW accessibility guidelines are based on W3C”s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. These are internationally accepted guidelines on web accessibility and cover a wide range of recommendations for making web content more accessible.

DeitY has initiated the Website Quality Testing project which is being executed by Standardization Testing and Quality Certification (STQC) for testing and certifying the government websites. Under this project, 1000 websites have been undertaken for testing. Currently, around 950 websites of various Ministries/Departments, attached offices, societies have already been tested by STQC and test reports have been sent to the concerned Ministries/Departments for addressing the issues of non-compliance.

(c) and (d) No, Sir. However, as per the Web Accessibility Survey Report for Indian Government websites – 2012 of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), none of 10 Government websites were able to meet even the basic accessibility standards. The Government has undertaken following steps in this regard:

(i) The Guidelines for Indian Government Websites (GIGW) have been adopted by the Department of Administrative Reforms & Public Grievances (DARPG). The GIGW guidelines adhere to the requirements of persons with disabilities and ensure compliance with level A of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as laid down by World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). GIGW has incorporated all the level A success criteria and a few success criteria from level AA. This is sufficient to make the websites accessible.

(ii) Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) has had three rounds of meetings with the Website Information Managers (WIMs) of various Government departments to sensitize the departments regarding addressing the non-conformance issues of their websites with GIGW. STQC along with e-Governance division of DeitY and NIC has conducted one-to-one discussion with the concerned departments and ministries to close the non-conformance areas.

(Sarvjeet is a Project Manager and Research Fellow at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi)