Digital Equality: The Case for Internet Access as a Basic Human Right

Explore the compelling case for recognizing internet access as a fundamental right in India. Delve into the constitutional, judicial, and legislative landscapes that shape digital equality and the urgent need to bridge the digital divide, ensuring equitable access for all citizens.
Digital Equality: The Case for Internet Access as a Basic Human Right

In the burgeoning digital era, the internet has transcended its role as a mere tool for communication, evolving into a vital component of daily life. The discourse around digital equality in India is gaining momentum, with advocates arguing for internet access to be recognized as a basic human right. This stance is not without precedent; the United Nations Human Rights Council declared internet access a human right in 2016, urging countries to promote and facilitate access to it. Within the Indian legal framework, this discussion takes on a unique contour, intertwining with the country's constitutional directives, judicial pronouncements, and ongoing legislative endeavors.

The Constitutional Edifice

At the heart of India's legal system lies its Constitution, a document that, while drafted in the mid-20th century, has shown remarkable adaptability to the challenges of the digital age. The Constitution does not explicitly mention the right to internet access; however, its broad principles have been interpreted to encompass digital rights within the ambit of fundamental human rights. This interpretation is grounded in the understanding that the internet is now integral to exercising various constitutional rights, including freedom of expression, education, privacy, and the right to access information.

In the case of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) versus Union Of India And Others, the ruling by the Supreme Court of India is noteworthy. is a cornerstone in this evolving legal landscape. In this landmark judgment, the Court recognized privacy as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution, which protects the right to life and personal liberty. The judgment underscored the importance of the internet in ensuring the freedom of expression and the right to privacy, thereby laying the groundwork for further interpretation of internet access as a fundamental right.

This interpretation was further solidified in subsequent judgments that directly addressed the issue of internet access. For instance, the Supreme Court's rulings have clarified that any government action impeding internet access must be scrutinized for its necessity, proportionality, and the least restrictive means of achieving the stated objectives. Through these judgments, the judiciary has sent a clear message that the internet is not a luxury but a necessity for realizing a range of constitutional rights in the digital era.

Bridging the Digital Divide: A Legislative Endeavor

The notion of the digital divide delineates the disparity between individuals with access to contemporary information and communication technology (ICT) and those lacking such access. This divide exists not just globally, but within countries, including India, where disparities in internet access can exacerbate social and economic inequalities. Recognizing the transformative potential of the internet in education, healthcare, commerce, and governance, the Indian government has undertaken significant legislative and policy initiatives aimed at bridging this divide.

The Digital India campaign, launched in 2015, represents a comprehensive effort to ensure government services are made available to citizens electronically, thereby improving online infrastructure and increasing internet connectivity across the country. The program focuses on three core components: the development of secure and stable digital infrastructure, delivering government services digitally, and universal digital literacy. The initiative encompasses a wide range of projects, including the BharatNet project aimed at providing high-speed broadband to rural areas, digital literacy programs to educate citizens on the use of digital technologies, and e-Governance schemes to make government services more accessible.

These legislative endeavors and policy initiatives reflect a growing recognition of the importance of internet access in achieving socio-economic development and equity. By focusing on digital infrastructure, literacy, and governance, the Indian government aims not only to bridge the digital divide but also to lay the groundwork for a digitally empowered society.

However, the challenge remains to ensure that these initiatives are implemented in a manner that aligns with the constitutional mandate of equality and non-discrimination. This requires continuous oversight, evaluation, and adaptation of policies to ensure that the benefits of digital access are equitably distributed among all sections of society, thereby truly bridging the digital divide.

The journey towards recognizing and actualizing internet access as a fundamental right in India is a multifaceted endeavor that encompasses constitutional interpretation, judicial activism, and legislative policy-making. The constitutional edifice provides the foundational principles, while legislative efforts like the Digital India campaign aim to operationalize these principles into tangible outcomes for citizens. Together, they form a critical framework for bridging the digital divide and ensuring that the benefits of the digital age are accessible to all Indians.

The Judiciary on Digital Access

The Indian judiciary has played a pivotal role in shaping the discourse around digital access, interpreting the Constitution to affirm that access to the internet is an extension of fundamental rights. This section delves into landmark judgments and their implications for digital rights in India.

Landmark Judgments and Their Implications

  • Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India: This case emerged as a significant judicial milestone concerning internet shutdowns in the context of Jammu and Kashmir. The Supreme Court held that freedom of speech and expression through the internet is a part of Article 19(1)(a) and that any restriction on internet access needs to be justified as a necessary measure under Article 19(2). The Court emphasized that any suspension of internet services must not only be temporary but also proportionate to the underlying threat necessitating such measures.

  • Foundation for Media Professionals vs Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and Ors.: In this judgment, the Supreme Court reiterated the principles laid out in Anuradha Bhasin, stressing the importance of maintaining a balance between state interests and individual freedoms. The Court outlined that restrictions on internet access must be subject to review and adhere to the principles of necessity and proportionality.

These judgments underscore the judiciary's stance that the internet is a vital tool for the exercise of freedom of speech and expression, education, and the right to privacy. The Court has effectively placed a judicial check on the state's power to curtail internet access, mandating a rigorous assessment of any such restrictions.

Legislative Responses and Challenges

Despite the judiciary's progressive stance on digital access, legislative efforts to embody these principles in law have faced challenges. This section explores the legislative landscape governing internet access in India and the hurdles in aligning it with judicial mandates.

Existing Legislation and Gaps

The primary legislation governing internet use in India is the Information Technology Act, 2000, supplemented by various rules and regulations. While this Act addresses cyber security, electronic commerce, and electronic governance, critics argue that it lacks specific provisions that acknowledge internet access as a fundamental right or that set out clear, proportionate guidelines for internet shutdowns or restrictions.

Balancing Act: Security vs. Freedom

One of the central challenges in legislative responses is balancing national security concerns with the right to digital access. While the government has often justified internet restrictions on grounds of preventing unrest or terrorism, there is a growing demand for transparency, accountability, and proportionality in such measures. The absence of a clear legislative framework that delineates the conditions under which internet access can be restricted leaves room for potential abuse and arbitrary decision-making.

The Way Forward

To address these challenges, there is a pressing need for legislative reform that:

  • Explicitly recognizes internet access as a fundamental right, thereby ensuring that any restrictions are imposed only as a last resort and in the most transparent and proportionate manner possible.

  • Establishes a comprehensive oversight mechanism, including judicial review, to ensure that decisions to restrict internet access are subject to rigorous scrutiny.

  • Promotes digital literacy and infrastructure development, further bridging the digital divide and ensuring equitable access to the internet for all citizens.

The judiciary's affirmations of digital access as a fundamental right have set a precedent for how India approaches internet freedom. However, realizing this vision requires legislative action that not only recognizes internet access as a basic human right but also provides a clear, accountable framework for when and how access can be restricted. The interplay between judicial interpretation and legislative action will continue to define the contours of digital rights in India, underscoring the need for a nuanced approach that balances individual freedoms with national security in the digital age.


The conclusion emphasizes the need for a harmonized approach between the judiciary and legislature in India to ensure that internet access is universally recognized and protected as a fundamental right. It calls for legislation that not only acknowledges this right but also establishes mechanisms to prevent its unjust deprivation. By securing internet access as a basic human right, India can bridge the digital divide and foster a more inclusive digital environment. This section underscores the importance of internet access in the contemporary world and advocates for India to take proactive steps in enshrining digital equality in its legal framework, aligning national laws with international human rights standards.

Subhash Ahlawat
Subhash Ahlawat
Mar 20
5 min read