Mapping the increase in internet shutdowns in India since 2016
On June 17, 2020, the Censorship Index The magazine published an interview of a Kashmiri journalist’s experience of government-imposed internet shutdowns in the region.
Bilal Hussain, a business journalist who lives in Srinagar, said he had to access the internet on government-run computers at a “media facilitation center” for several months due to internet restrictions. He added that he had to create a new email ID to communicate with his editors because there was no privacy, and he was forced to work under constant surveillance amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hussain is one of many who have suffered from the constant internet outages in the valley.
According to data from Access Now, a digital rights group, between 2016 and 2021, around 931 government-mandated internet shutdowns were recorded in 74 countries. Between January 2012 and June 2022, there were 647 government-imposed internet shutdowns across India, resulting in the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world to date.
Figure 1 shows that internet shutdowns have increased from 30 in 2016 to 106 in 2021, making India the biggest violator of internet shutdowns in the world under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule.
Broadly speaking, there are two forms of internet shutdowns.
The first is an explicit use of shutdown, where the government imposes an absolute blackout of internet services in a location. While another approach is speed throttling, when the government deliberately slows down the internet, reducing the 4G network to a 2G network, forcing a targeted population to rely on passive speed.
It is also important to examine the increase in Internet shutdowns from state archives. From 2016 to 2022, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana were the states with the most internet outages in India. See figure 2.
Another report noted that India led the world in internet shutdowns and that J&K accounted for around two-thirds (63%) of total shutdowns in the country, both in terms of frequency and duration. .
Political scientist Kris Ruijgrok claims in his article that the BJP is directly responsible for the increase in internet shutdowns in India. Furthermore, he said he was also indirectly responsible for the increase in internet shutdowns in non-BJP states.
For example, in Rajasthan, the murder of a Hindu tailor, Kanhaiya Lal, prompted police to immediately ban the internet in the state, fearing further violence between different communities. During the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests, internet services were suspended in many parts of Uttar Pradesh.
Additionally, the Internet Freedom Foundation had issued a statement in January 2021 condemning the use of internet shutdowns to quell the farmers’ protest. He added that internet shutdowns have become the government’s “routine response to the protests”.
Ruijgrok argues that there is a lack of regulatory framework in India, due to which there are fewer constraints on bureaucrats who issue internet shutdowns.
In 2017, new rules for ordering internet shutdowns were introduced under the Indian Telegraph Act 1885. Under the temporary suspension of telecommunications services (public emergency and public safety), shutdowns Internet could only be enforced by the Union Home Secretary or State Governments. .
However, the case differs on the ground as there have been cases like the anti-CAA protests in 2019, when a internet shutdown order was adopted by the Deputy Commissioner of Delhi Police, in violation of applicable law. In another similar case in Kashmir, in 2017, the government imposed an internet shutdown in the valley without prior approval from any government agency.
Meanwhile, the economic impact of internet outages in India is worsening. According to a report by Brookings, between July 2015 and June 2016, 1,692 hours of internet shutdowns in India cost the economy $968 million. The cost rose to $2.8 billion in 2020 for around 8,927 hours of internet censorship, according to data curated by Top10VPN.
Another report by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Research in April 2018 said that frequent internet shutdowns were hurting sectors that mainly depend on digital technologies such as e-commerce, tourism and IT services. Health care and education are also the hardest hit by frequent digital blackouts.
In West Bengal’s Darjeeling district, the state government in 2018 imposed an internet ban for more than 100 days after the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha called a strike against the government’s imposition of the Bengali language in all schools.
The shutdown affected a courier service called Turant that relied heavily on digital platforms. Many other e-commerce businesses in Darjeeling have also suffered heavy losses without internet.
In Jammu and Kashmir, which has suffered the highest number of internet shutdowns, districts such as Pulwama, Kulgam, Shopian, Anantnag have seen more internet restrictions than other parts of the former state, now a territory of the Union. According to the government, the reasons for the frequent internet shutdowns in the region are national state security or the fight against terrorism, putting Kashmir on the permanent pedestal of “state of exception”.
According to researcher Sheikh Moinuddin, the internet and communications blockade at J&K has been happening since 2005 on Independence Day and Republic Day. He also added that such a major internet blockade was seen in 2012 by the state government over a row of anti-Islamic films.
After reading Section 370 on August 5, 2019, the former J&K state faced the longest shutdown on earth which lasted nearly 172 days of absolute digital outage and 378 days of speed restrictions.
There has been a strong sense of dissent among Kashmiris against state action, with the government using curfews and draconian laws as instruments to drown out their voices. For more than a decade, they have actively used digital media to demonstrate their challenge to the state. However, the government has started to extend the curfew mechanism even to the digital space, citing “national security” as a motive.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book The origins of totalitarianism explains that any totalitarian state generally destroys the precondition of freedom, which means, first, the fundamental destruction of civil liberties, and second, making the whole concept of freedom redundant. Therefore, the digital blackout is a method depriving Kashmiris of any hope of communication, until they slavishly acclimate to the “new normal”.
The increase in internet shutdowns in India also comes against the backdrop of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) passing a resolution in 2016 calling internet access a human right. basic human. He also urged states to refrain from intentionally blocking the dissemination of information to common people in online mode.
In addition, on January 10, 2020, the Supreme Court of Anuradha Bhasin V. The Union of India had also ruled that freedom of speech and expression on the Internet is a fundamental right under section 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
Figure 4 shows that in the early years, between October 2015 and 2017, the government used “public safety” as a reason to shut down the internet. In 2019 and 2020, he added “fake news” and “precautionary measures” to the list of reasons to block the Internet. In 2021, the government used “national security” as a reason to shut down the internet. “Cheating” has also been used as a reason to block the Internet.
The real reason, however, remained mainly dominated by political instability and protests.
The data shows how brutal government language to restrict internet access has become year after year.
There are many ways to conduct free and fair exams, but the use of an internet ban to prevent cheating also affects the daily lives of other people in the region. Two issues should be noted behind the government’s order to shut down the internet: First, terms like “national security” are not enough for such harsh measures of rolling out internet bans. Second, the threat to India’s sovereignty cannot be used to shut down the internet – a human right – because such orders endanger people’s lives, especially those who rely primarily on the internet these days.
Internet bans appear to be extrajudicial actions that violate unwritten terms between the state and citizens. The state is required to take measures that do not disrupt people’s civic life, and it should give space to dissent in the digital media.