The motley group had queued up well before 9 am at the Delhi office of VSNL, carrying demand drafts of Rs 6,000 each, worth nearly Rs 32,000 today. It was the day after India’s 48th Independence Day in 1995, and offices would open late. But we were desperate to sign on to India’s first public internet service.
We were all curious about something else: had any of the waiting strangers bought a mobile phone yet? Just 17 days ago, on 31 July 1995, West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu had received the first mobile call from then-telecom minister Sukh Ram in Kolkata. As it turned out, no one had a cellphone yet. Each of those mobile bricks cost over Rs 40,000, not counting the expensive service.
VSNL’s Internet service was terrible. A text-only ‘shell account’ on a 9.6 kbps dial-up link over poor fixed telephone lines via a noisy modem that would drop connection every few minutes. But it opened up a new world for us.
Fast forward to today. Most of us are working from home in a global pandemic. Some of us have 100 Mbps fibre links—each not only 10,000 times faster than those dial-ups, but well over 1,500 times more than India’s total international bandwidth for internet at that time. We have online classes, Zoom calls, and Netflix movies on at the same time in our homes. India’s first live-streamed deposition, in high-quality HD, was held in Delhi last month, on Facebook’s role in moderating hate speech.
Please watch the deposition here: https://t.co/PRl2FtmtDj (after Paranjoy Guha Thakurta's, which was for around 40-45 min)
— Nikhil Pahwa (@nixxin) August 28, 2020
India has 1.16 billion mobile subscriptions, over 95 per cent of them prepaid. A monthly payment of under Rs 200 gives unlimited voice calls across the country. There are over 660 million broadband subscribers — over 90 per cent of them mobile. We pay less than Rs 5 per GB of mobile data, among the lowest in the world — the global average is over $5 per GB.
The market has seen spikes of growth, with the occasional disruptors. Like four-year-old Reliance Jio shaking up a market of decades-old incumbents. Or the occasional existential blow: like the recent ‘AGR’ (adjusted gross revenue) case where a Supreme Court bench came close to shutting down our top two operators.
Over these decades, many cases went to court and shaped the market, and the telecom industry. Here’s five landmark ones that made a real difference.
August 2017—Justice Puttaswamy vs Union of India
Privacy is a fundamental right, said a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India, much to the consternation of the Narendra Modi government, which was saying it is not. This right is protected under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution, said the ruling, ending the confusion and inconsistency across a litany of historical judgments.
The Modi government’s stance that privacy was not a fundamental right came during arguments in the original writ petition challenging the constitutionality of Aadhaar, the biometric ID for Indian residents, filed in 2012 by Justice K.S. Puttaswamy, an 86-year-old retired judge of the Karnataka High Court. The justice who sought justice is now 94.
March 2015 — Shreya Singhal vs Union of India
The Supreme Court struck down the draconian Section 66A of the Information Technology Act that criminalised any content that was annoying, inconvenient or grossly offensive – terms that were found to be too broad and vague. The section was frequently abused by law enforcement agencies to detain people based on forwarded messages and even a ‘like’ on a social media post.
The two-judge bench ruled that the right to freedom of thought and expression was cardinal; that section 66A indeed violated the freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution; and that such a sweeping law could not be justified as a ‘reasonable restriction on free speech’ under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
The ruling further clarified that “public authorities, not private platforms, should sit in judgement” when online speech allegedly violates the law, without which platforms like Facebook might prefer to remove content in a hurry based on complaints.
Who is Shreya Singhal? A young woman from a family of lawyers, who was shocked by a spate of arrests for online posts. They included that of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, and of two Mumbai girls for a Facebook post. When she challenged Section 66A in 2012, Singhal was all of 21, a graduate student hoping to get into law school.
December 2004 — Arrest of Avnish Bajaj
Bajaj is a US citizen and founder of the online auction platform Bazee.com (then recently acquired by eBay). A seller had on the platform listed for sale a CD containing a video clip of a sexual act between two Delhi school students, resulting in a hue and cry. eBay India took down the listing immediately, but Bajaj was arrested on a Friday, only to be granted bail after the weekend on Monday.
This incident triggered a thorough review of the Information Technology Act, 2000, leading to substantive amendments passed by Parliament in 2008. These included not just defining the nuanced legal test for intermediary liability protection, but also several others – including the controversial Section 66A, created with good intent but made ever so sweeping after the fallout of the 26/11 Mumbai attack that year.
January 1998 — VSNL blocks internet telephony
Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited, then the only ISP in the country and a public sector company, directed its subscribers not to use its Internet service for telephony or fax applications. Access to some websites blocked by VSNL was restored after a writ petition was filed in the Delhi High Court asserting that such blocking was a breach of the petitioner’s fundamental right of speech and expression, and that mere access did not amount to actually using Internet telephony services.
The petitioner was IIT Delhi graduate Arun Mehta, a software developer and a disability activist. VSNL was privatised in 2002 and became Tata Communications Limited. Ironically, as the world’s largest carrier of Internet traffic, it carries a great deal of Internet telephony.
February 1998 — TRAI’s nay to private ISPs
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), then a quasi-judicial body, stayed the licensing guidelines for private ISPs published in January 1998, because the government had not sought TRAI’s recommendations as required under the law. Incidentally, the proposed license allowed only a small ‘whitelist’ of Internet services, including Archie, Veronica and Gopher – some of the search engines at that time. Thankfully, revised guidelines announced in November 1998 permitted ‘all types of Internet access and content services’, except Internet telephony (which was later allowed from April 2002, even if in a somewhat restricted manner).
But for that timely intervention in 1998, we would not have been able to use new services or apps, unless the government decided that it was kosher. This case saw rapid turnaround, all within a span of less than five weeks. The case was filed by a group of e-mail licensees (yes, there used to be a telecom license for e-mail those days in India) and one of us had signed the petition as the deponent.
Beyond the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, the lofty objectives in public policy documents, and the procedural safeguards in laws and regulations, the role of institutions and the need for an enlightened and proactive citizenry and ever-vigilant civil society cannot be overemphasised in a thriving and participatory democracy.
Over the next quarter century, India needs to not just embrace the Internet for inclusive, equitable and sustainable development, but also become a role model and global leader in egalitarian governance of the Internet. This is especially true when the stresses and strains of trade wars and privacy battles amid a global pandemic are leading to a fracturing of the global internet, banning of apps and creation of walled gardens.
Deepak Maheshwari is a public policy consultant and senior visiting fellow at ICRIER and Prasanto K Roy is a public policy consultant. Views are personal.