Indian Government to Set Up Public Wifi Access Across the Country. Would You Use It?
India’s Union Cabinet recently approved a proposal that aims to set up free, public wifi hotspots all around the country, in an attempt to bring the internet to the hundreds of millions of Indians who remain unconnected.
Called the Wi-Fi Access Network Interface, or PM-WANI, it involves establishing public gathering places — such as a grocery store or a paan shop — as official public data offices (PDOs) where wifi will be available through an app to registered users. The PDOs won’t need to pay any licensing or registration fee to have the wifi set up, the government announced.
The scheme “will revolutionize the tech world,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.
In India, almost 50% of the country’s population lacks access to the internet, amounting to roughly 700 million people. This lack of connectivity predominantly affects the poor, particularly amid the Covid19 pandemic when millions of students have been left out of schooling as classes moved online. This has meant approximately 320 million children, according to Save The Children Fund, have lost out on their education due to no internet access.
But the issues posed by a lack of Internet connectivity go beyond education,. A lack of access to digital spaces means millions in India can’t access information about health care, rights, entitlements, opportunities to upskill, how to venture into new career paths, or how to set up alternative incomes (a particular need in a pandemic) that don’t risk their lives.
Past projects that have attempted to set up wifi hotspots — such as the Modi government’s Digital India initiative that intended to set up 700,000 wifi hotspots in rural areas — have not had any significant impact, with India’s Internet connectivity sticking to a stubborn 50%.
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On paper, then, the latest initiative shows promise, if it can be effectively implemented. Bringing internet access (now considered a human right by the United Nations) to millions of Indians is a developmental need that can exponentially increase educational and work opportunities for a sizeable chunk of the population. However, there are some issues to consider — mainly, privacy and security risks.
The internet brings with it data privacy issues, over which governments are already grappling with Big Tech. Who collects and stores the data of millions, if not billions of users, and what do they do with the data? In this case, it would be the government, which has already been tight-lipped when it comes to accountability to the public. Then comes the security issue; in response to public wifi networks in New York, experts have raised concerns that the public’s “internet browsing history may reveal sensitive information about their political views, religious affiliations or medical issues.” In a highly-polarized, Hindu nationalist country such as India, wherein dissenters are already routinely punished, harassed, or killed, the government having direct access to this information is alarming.
Already, the government has been cracking down on people for voicing anti-government views, and officials are increasingly asking tech platforms to release sensitive user data. A public wifi network proposal, then, while beneficial, needs to be implemented alongside initiatives that educate people about their rights to personal data and within digital spaces, while creating frameworks that prevent the government from abusing the access it will get to users’ Internet histories.
Expansion of the internet to the rest of India is an admirable, imperative goal. But with more connectivity will come more responsibility to protect people from digital risks — even if that includes risk from the government itself.