Chapter Thirty: Looking back at 2021

Dear 2022, hope you get the best of humans, and not just data.

As we move yet another year into the pandemic, we look back to see that 2021 was marked with issues of access and exclusion, as ever. Even as education and work continued to be online just as it was in the previous year, 2021 also saw the increasing digitisation of health, along with fatal examples that the lack of connectivity brought. 2021 also saw frequent internet shutdowns across the country, from Kashmir to New Delhi's highways. The year also saw huge data breaches, violations of privacy, and online hate targeted at marginalised communities by explicitly violating their privacy. It also saw numerous anti-people bills passed in the parliament hastily while ignoring all opposition.

At the core of the work that we do at DEF is attempting to fight the digital divide, empower everyone with digital devices, and the internet by ensuring last-mile connectivity. All our chapters talk about this exclusion, but do look into our chapters nine and twenty-six which discuss this in detail.

To run by the not positive news first-

Kashmir remained in the world's longest ever imposed internet shutdown last year, in the interest of "sovereignty and integrity of India," as the indian government claimed. The total shutdowns last year was lower (44 shutdowns) compared to the previous three years (134 in 2018; 106 in 2019; 129 in 2020), as per statistics by internetshutdowns.in

It was only in February last year that internet services were finally restored in Jammu and Kashmir after 18 months -that's over 500 days- of the shutdown. At the slightest incident, it continued to be disrupted throughout the year.

Our January edition of TypeRight focused on this.

What 2021 also saw, was one of the worst health crises the country had ever faced. The second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic hit hard from March to June, and spread through the countryside. Better connected hospitals and health facilities would have enabled better and targeted containment of the disease and efficient utilisation of resources including oxygen and medicines which the country ran out of at the peak of the second wave. An online-only portal for vaccine registration also led to millions who are unconnected being excluded from the vaccines, something that proved fatal at times. The government meanwhile, used the pandemic, vaccines and vague lines of consent to collect more data and build a national database.

Our second edition of TypeRight focuses on the digital divide in the pandemic and the repression on people. Our twenty-seventh chapter also focuses on the National Digital (Ayushman Bharat) Health Mission.

DEF had launched an ICT-enabled and community-specific relief programme, "COVID-19 DIGITAL EMERGENCY RELIEF PROGRAMME 2.0", through virtual community and service facilitation. Our volunteers on the ground had also trained the Soochanapreneurs to distribute necessities including pulse oximeters, masks, sanitisers and supply of rations, and to raise awareness on COVID protocols, vaccination and other verified information.

Even now, as the Omicron variant of the virus is leading to concern, caution and plans of booster dose vaccines, our Soochnapreneurs are working on awareness campaigns on the ground.

The next major digital buzzword of last year was surveillance. 2021 saw the expose on the Pegasus spyware, a malicious software developed by an Israeli firm and sold to governments who have used it to target voices of dissent. TypeRight chapter twenty-seven looks into the latest updates on the Pegasus row. Take a look at chapters eleven, thirteen, eighteen, and nineteen for more on our takes, as the issue had developed.

Cover image from chapter eleven

2021 saw two major data breaches in the month of May: one on Air India's database and another in Dominos Pizza, which along with seven other big breaches last year has led to at least 86 Million users having their info stolen online.

In the backdrop of these breaches, and rising concerns on privacy, data security, and surveillance, the government passed the amended data protection bill from 2019. TypeRight's chapter twenty-eight focuses on the data protection law, and chapter twenty-nine focuses on exclusion and disenfranchisement from the new Aadhaar amendment.

Cover image from chapter twenty-nine

The increase in surveillance can be traced through the amendments being made to the Aadhaar, the registering of births and deaths, the electoral rolls, and the proposals on the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID). Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) and Amnesty pointed out the scary levels of surveillance Hyderabad and Telangana plans to implement, and how this was being scaled up country-wide.

Also from last year is the targeted attack against marginalised women. In July 2021, photos and social media handles of more than 80 Indian Muslim women were shared in a demeaning way — a "deal of the day" where you could "claim a sulli": a derogatory term used by right-wing trolls for Muslim women. While GitHub claims to have removed the app and the user behind it, they neither issued a formal statement nor did Indian police or the judiciary follow up on the incident for justice, even as this clearly is a targetted case of harassment on Muslim women.

IFF had done a detailed timeline of the issue back in November:

Now, less than six months later, in 2022, similar people behind targetted hate campaigns have relaunched it as another GitHub app called BulliBai. This brings into question the government's responses on women and minority issues, as well as the policies of GitHub on hate-speech content.

Misinformation and fake news are still on the rise. Last year saw more misinformation spread than before, across the world and in India, from election campaigns, propaganda, to vaccines and climate change.

Centre for Internet and Society released a report on disinformation in media, and how to work against it through defunding.

Our friends at AltNews, an independent fact-checking platform have worked throughout the year attempting to fight fake news.

DEF's Digital Sarthak program trains entrepreneurs to segregate fake news, along with upskilling.

What 2021 saw, on the better half of things, is the PM-WANI. Implementation challenges and some criticisms on data security aside, the scheme is generally lauded as a huge step towards shrinking the digital divide. PM-WANI also works on the same model proposed by DEF to the government.

Here is DEF's report on the PM-WANI from March this year.

2021 also saw a major victory for the Farmers' Protest which had started over a year ago, against the three farm laws passed by the government, and demanding fair Minimum Support Prices among other demands. The protests that mainly happened around Delhi and its bordering highway saw violent state repression, internet shutdowns, media gagging including intimidating Navkiran Natt, the founder of Trolley Times, and over six hundred martyrs.

DEF's Asheef Iqubal had visited the protest site earlier this year and had written about the systemic failure of our media. You can read the report here.


Till we meet next time, here is a meme from the internet...

... and a message from our founder, Osama Manzar

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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad

TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad, is a weekly conversational bulletin curated through the news and discussions on social media as well as what's happening on the ground. Through the eyes and ears of Digital Empowerment Foundation across rural India and global south, TypeRight aspires to focus on bringing the contextual relevance of digital technologies and developments on the society - both connected and unconnected.
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