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 Global Internet Freedom in 2023


According to a report by Freedom House (a Washington DC-based non-profit) on the state of Global Internet Freedom in 2023, there is a concerning trend of declining Internet freedom for the 13th consecutive year, with 29 countries experiencing a deterioration in the environment for human rights online.


GS II: Polity and Governance

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Key Highlights of the Report on Internet Freedom
  2. Censorship: Control and Regulation of Information and Expression
  3. Advantages and Limitations of Censorship
  4. Way Forward

Key Highlights of the Report on Internet Freedom

  • The report assesses developments between June 2022 and May 2023.
  • Evaluation spans 70 countries, collectively representing 88% of the global Internet user population.
Censorship Methods Evaluated:

Countries are evaluated based on five censorship methods:

  • Internet connectivity restrictions
  • Blocks on social media platforms
  • Website blocks
  • VPN blocks
  • Forced removal of online content
Role of Artificial Intelligence (AI):
  • AI-driven tools are increasingly sophisticated and accessible.
  • AI is employed in at least 16 countries to disseminate disinformation.
  • In 22 countries, AI enhances content censorship efficiency, automating the removal of politically, socially, or religiously unacceptable content.
Legal Repercussions:
  • A record high of 55 out of the 70 assessed countries witnessed legal consequences for online expression.
  • Physical Threats Due to Online Statements:
  • In 41 countries, individuals faced assault or fatal attacks due to their online statements.
Country-Specific Observations:
  • Iran experienced increased digital repression, marked by Internet shutdowns, social media platform blocks, and heightened surveillance to suppress anti-government protests.
  • China retained its status as the worst country for Internet freedom for the ninth consecutive year.
  • Myanmar ranked as the second most repressive country for online freedom.
  • India incorporated AI-based censorship into its legal framework, impacting freedom of expression and criticism of the ruling party.
  • The report raises concerns about adverse consequences for Indian democracy, particularly as the country prepares for general elections in 2024. This expansion of the censorship regime creates an uneven playing field.

Censorship: Control and Regulation of Information and Expression

  • Censorship refers to the practice of suppressing or managing information, ideas, or expressions considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or threatening to specific groups, organizations, or governments.
  • It involves limiting or prohibiting the dissemination, publication, or access to certain content, and can be enforced by individuals, institutions, or authorities.
Censorship in India:
  • In India, censorship laws encompass a wide array of content that enters the public domain, including advertisements, theatre, films, series, music, speeches, reports, debates, magazines, newspapers, art forms, literature, documentaries, and oral works.
Mechanisms of Censorship in India:
  • Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr.P.C):
    • Section 95 of the Cr.P.C permits the forfeiture of specific content or publications.
    • State Governments can use this section to take legal action if content in newspapers, books, or documents is deemed harmful to the state.
  • Central Bureau of Film Certification (CBFC):
    • CBFC, operating under the Cinematograph Act, 1952, regulates the content of films made available to the public.
    • It employs a system of prior certification for films, and broadcasters are required to adhere to the guidelines set forth in the ‘Programme Code and Advertisement Code.’
  • Press Council of India:
    • Established under the Press Council Act, 1978, this statutory and quasi-judicial body serves as a self-regulatory authority for the press.
    • It monitors media content to ensure adherence to press ethics and the public interest.
  • The Cable Television Networks Act, 1995:
    • This act governs the content that can be broadcasted on cable television.
    • Cable operators must register as per the act to ensure oversight.
  • Social Media Platforms and the New IT Rules, 2021:
    • Censorship concerns grew with the rapid expansion of social media in India.
    • The Information and Technology Act, 2000, particularly Sections 67A, 67B, 67C, and 69A, include provisions for regulating social media use.
  • IT (Intermediary Guidelines & Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021:
    • These rules, introduced alongside amendments to the ‘Allocation of Business Rules’ under the IT Act, 2000, brought digital media, online platforms, and OTT (Over The Top) services under the purview of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting.

Advantages and Limitations of Censorship

  • Preventing Disharmony and Communal Discord:
    • Censorship prevents the dissemination of objectionable content that can incite communal discord, thereby promoting social harmony.
  • Protecting Social Stability and National Safety:
    • Censorship, particularly of the internet, can safeguard social stability and national security by curbing illegal activities and internet-related crimes.
  • Curbing Illegal Activities and Threats to Economy:
    • Censorship can deter illegal organizations from releasing harmful information that could disrupt the national economy and political stability.
  • Countering False Beliefs and Rumors:
    • Governments can use censorship to counter false beliefs, rumors, and misinformation, thereby maintaining public order.
  • Protecting Children and Vulnerable Groups:
    • Internet censorship filters out inappropriate and harmful content, shielding children from disturbing websites like child pornography, sexual violence, and drug-related instructions.
  • Moral Policing and Intrusion into Private Lives:
    • Censorship legislation can be misapplied, becoming a tool for moral policing that controls individuals’ lives rather than addressing broader public concerns.
  • Risk of Discretionary Political Control:
    • Broad powers granted to regulatory bodies, often composed of bureaucrats, may lead to discretionary political control over censorship decisions.
  • Varied Interpretations of Morality:
    • The definitions of morality, taste, and distaste vary widely in India, making it challenging to enforce consistent and fair censorship.
  • Conflict with Constitutional Freedom of Speech:
    • Intense censorship can conflict with the constitutional guarantee of free speech and expression, subject to reasonable restrictions, for all Indian citizens.

Way Forward:

  • Legal and Regulatory Safeguards:
    • Strong legal and regulatory safeguards should be in place to protect freedom of speech and expression, particularly in the realm of digital communications and access to information.
  • AI Regulation:
    • Appropriate regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) is essential to ensure that it bolsters internet freedom rather than suppressing it, striking a balance between security and individual rights.

-Source: The Hindu

December 2023