“We have no dearth of examples of work we are doing at full steam but we now parallelly have to see how this is getting translated into tangible results on the ground,” Dr Nirmita Narasimhan, Senior Fellow and Program Director Asia-Pacific, G3ict, said during the inaugural event of India’s first Internet Governance Forum.
Narasimhan was speaking about digital accessibility at the session in which she was joined by India’s IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, Minister of State for IT Rajeev Chandrashekhar, IT Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney, and Broadcast India Forum President TV Ramachandran.
During the session, Narasimhan referred to the Digital Accessibility Rights Evaluation Index (DARE Index) conducted by G3ict (Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies), on which India ranked 45th among 137 countries, particularly marking shortfalls in implementation and outcomes from policies. Taking pointers from it, Narasimhan suggested the path India could take going forward.
Where does India need to work to improve digital accessibility?
Lack of policies: There are some areas where we still do not have policies on accessibility, like mobile telephony while in other areas there is a lack of implementation, Narasimhan said.
Accessibility By Design: “Things have to be born accessible – technologies, buildings everything has to be born accessible. We very often go into retro-fitting mode and that is not sustainable,” Narasimhan said.
Building tech infrastructure: “Our focus should be on solving a specific contextual requirement and to make these technologies available, affordable, scalable, usable, and compatible with other products,” Narasimhan said, asking the government to build technology infrastructure. She gave the example of ‘text-to-speech systems to bring people who are illiterate or did not understand English online.
Capacity building: “..Our universities and engineering colleges are not building that capacity among students as yet so that is where the sensitivity will start,” Narasimhan said, with relation to accessibility in technology products. Narasimhan also said that the government needs to start providing accessibility and universal design experts to guide people and institutions across the country, on making things accessible, and thinking inclusive. According to her, something like this would take effort for the first three years before it becomes a part of the system.
Equipping people with devices: “So we have apps, we have libraries and we have all these resources, citizen services for that we should ensure that devices are made available for all these groups or persons with disabilities, elderly,” Narasimhan said. She also said that such devices should be bundled with lessons in skills on how to use such devices. According to her, these devices can be distributed through the universal service obligation fund.
What did the government have to say?
Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw pushed for discussions on the following points:
- Intermediary liability: Vaishnaw asked that the forum deliberate on who should be responsible for such content on social media platforms or other websites, so there are clear rules for it. “There is an implicit trust in the written word(…) young minds the minds who have still not created a structured way of thinking would be very easily tempted to believe whatever is the written word, ” Vaishnaw said.
Vaishnaw’s remark is interesting given that the IT Rules, 2021, already mandate a laundry list of compliance requirements on social media intermediaries, news publishers, and OTT streaming services. If that weren’t enough, the upcoming Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) report on the Personal Data Protection Bill (PDP) reportedly asks social media platforms to be treated as publishers of content, and not intermediaries.
- Inclusivity: Vaishnaw asked the forum to discuss how the digital divide can be reduced and how the internet’s benefits can be better extended.
It is important to note alongside Vaishnaw’s remark that India frequently ranks high on the number of internet shutdowns in the world. In 2020, an Access Now report found that India accounted for 109 out of 155 net shutdowns that took place worldwide. This year so far has seen multiple internet shutdowns for reasons ranging from examinations to protests.
- Cybersecurity: Vaishnaw asked the forum to discuss how cybersecurity challenges can be dealt with. “Can fundamental structures be built into the governance structure so that cybersecurity can become a central part of development?” he asked.
Vaishnaw’s question can be seen in the context of the much-delayed National Cybersecurity Strategy 20-25, which has been in the works since 2019. The data protection bill has also seen multiple delays, with the committee studying the bill seeking a total of 5 extensions of its deadline.
- Business model disruptions: Raising concerns that business model disruptions by e-commerce platforms could leave some people, who couldn’t cope with it, behind, Vaishnaw asked the forum to discuss how this could be prevented.
- Climate Change: Whether digital technologies can play a role in better managing the transition to cleaner energies.
IT Secretary Sawhney said that:
- The government is working towards facilitating access to non-English speakers by bringing more Indian languages and tools online. To that effect, he said that the government is working on a national language translation platform that will invite technological contributions to “create tools for citizens who will be accessing the internet in various languages”.
- The government is also hosting consultations with various private players on internationalised IDN (Internet Domain Names) and email address adoption (i.e IDNs and email address domains in Indian scripts).
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