Although India overtook the US to become the worlds second largest Internet consumer base behind China last year, Internet freedom declined slightly in the country, offsetting gains made in 2014 and 2015, a report revealed on Monday.
According to the "Freedom on the Net 2016" report by Freedom House, a US-based think tank, both government and non-governmental entities made efforts to bridge the digital divide in India. After effective digital campaigning, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) introduced strong net neutrality protections in 2016, prohibiting differential pricing by service providers for different content or applications.
"However, other developments undermined Internet freedom. Local authorities ordered service providers to temporarily shut down Internet access in at least 23 reported incidents in various states. In 2016, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition challenging the use of broad powers provided to state governments under the criminal procedure code to shut down internet services," the report stated.
The Supreme Court also upheld laws criminalising defamation which apply to both online and offline speech.
"Arrests for online activities declined in mid-2015. But arrests increased again during the coverage period of this report (June 2015-May 2016) under other sections of the IT Act and provisions of the penal code. At least 17 people were detained for content circulated on WhatsApp, including group administrators who were not responsible for the content," the report added.
Overall, Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year. Two-thirds of all Internet users - 67 percent - live in countries where criticism of the government, military or ruling family are subject to censorship.
"Although there were no reported instances of unlawful surveillance during the reporting period of coverage, this may be due to the extreme opacity of the regulatory framework governing surveillance. In May 2016, officials said the government's Central Monitoring System - an ambitious nationwide mass surveillance programme - became operational through regional monitoring centres in New Delhi and Mumbai," the report stated.
In June 2015, journalist Joginder Singh died in Uttar Pradesh when assailants set him on fire after he posted allegations about a local official's wrongdoing on Facebook.
Internet penetration in India continued to increase in 2016 with mobile penetration playing a significant role.
"Inadequate infrastructure remains a significant obstacle to access, especially in rural areas; however, various governmental and non-governmental efforts to improve access nationwide are underway," the report said.
According to the report, social media users face unprecedented penalties, as authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts over the past year.
Globally, 27 percent of all Internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely "liking" content on Facebook. Governments are increasingly going after messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, which can spread information quickly and securely," the report stated.
"Internet freedom has declined for the sixth consecutive year, with more governments than ever before targeting social media and communication apps as a means of halting the rapid dissemination of information, particularly during anti-government protests," said Sanja Kelly of Freedom House in a statement.
Public-facing social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been subject to growing censorship for several years, but in a new trend, governments increasingly target voice communication and messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram.
These services are able to spread information and connect users quickly and securely, making it more difficult for authorities to control the information landscape or conduct surveillance.