India, the world’s largest democracy, is the world leader in internet shutdowns.
With a population of 1.3 billion, and about half of them internet users, the South Asian giant was the worst internet disruptor last year — as it was in 2018 and 2019 — according to a report issued this month by digital rights non-profit Access Now.
There were at least 109 internet shutdowns in India last year, compared to six in Yemen, the second-worst disruptor, stated the report, Shattered Dreams And Lost Opportunities: A year in the fight to #KeepItOn.
This means India accounted for 70 per cent of at least 155 shutdowns documented by Access Now in 29 countries.
Proponents say shutdowns are justified if they can prevent violence. Enforcing laws against fake news becomes impossible once the falsehoods have gone viral, they argue.
But digital access advocates are against the idea. Not only are internet shutdowns undemocratic and a violation of human rights, there also are more nuanced ways in which governments can tackle disinformation, they say.
The programme Undercover Asia asks why the Indian government disrupts the internet so often and who pays the price.
‘DUTY TO PROTECT LIVES’
Last year, India’s internet disruption lasted 8,927 hours, including 7,272 hours of bandwidth throttling — the intentional slowdown of internet service — exacting an economic cost of nearly US$2.8 billion (S$3.75 billion), according to United Kingdom-based digital privacy firm Top10VPN.
Myanmar had the next-highest duration of disruption among the 21 countries on Top10VPN’s list, with 5,160 hours of blackouts in the Chin and Rakhine states and 3,648 hours of bandwidth throttling.
Officials in India justified the internet shutdowns by citing national security and public safety, or in terms of fighting fake news and hate speech, Access Now noted in its report. On two occasions, shutdowns were to prevent cheating in examinations.
“We have a duty to protect the lives of people in the best way we think is possible,” said Sudesh Verma, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
“And (in) that moment of emotion which can lead to violence, if you can prevent that, then that’s a good thing.”
Last month, the Indian government announced new social media rules to curb misuse like the spread of fake news. But he feels that filtering out disinformation is harder than it seems.
“One way is that you arrest everyone, (in which case) it’s big chaos that’s going to happen,” he said. “The other way is you shut down the way it is spread.”
While the internet drives the economy, “there are people who are interested in creating problems in society”, he added. “We’re a conflict-ridden society, and a small spark can cause a lot of trouble.
“Unless we can devise a way (to) shut down the interaction between terrorists and their master sitting somewhere (while allowing) people to access the Net … you have to accept that we have no way out.”
FUMIGATE A TOWN TO ZAP A FLY?
On the other hand, Natasha Badhwar, the media head of non-governmental organisation Karwan e Mohabbat (Caravan of Love) — which provides survivors of hate crimes with legal and social support — believes that the government “can control the medium without becoming authoritarian”.
“You can shut down particular websites temporarily. You can make it a punishable offence to spread disinformation,” she cited.
Apar Gupta, a lawyer and the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, said: “Proportionality essentially says to swat a fly, you won’t completely fumigate an entire town.
“You need to essentially go and do it in a targeted manner because the restriction on the liberty of a person needs to only match the justification, and it shouldn’t be excessive.”
Last year, his organisation worked with three environmental groups — including Fridays for Future India, a student-led climate action movement — whose websites were blocked following their online campaign against draft policies that could weaken environmental protections.
Amid public pressure, the authorities unblocked the websites and withdrew terror-related charges — a “positive” outcome, said Gupta. But he saw the incident as “worrying” because it showed “an increased level of resistance to citizen participation especially through digital advocacy tools”.
On the government’s action against the environmental groups, he said: “This rattled these young schoolchildren, who quite often come without any pronounced political opinion with respect to a preference for political party A or political party B.
“In fact, a lot of them support the present government. They thought they were fulfilling their constitutional duty to protect the ecology.”
COUNTING THE COST IN JAMMU AND KASHMIR
The region that has borne the brunt of India’s internet shutdowns is Jammu and Kashmir.
In August 2019, a day before the central government revoked a clause in India’s Constitution that gave the territory semi-autonomous status, the internet was cut off. Only in January last year was 2G internet access allowed.
Fixed-line broadband connection was restored last March. But 4G service continued to be blocked even as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. Officials said it was to prevent the spread of fake news and “provocative videos”, and the coordination of terror activities.
The Foundation for Media Professionals fought this blanket ban on high-speed internet until Feb 5, when 4G internet was restored to the entire territory — after 18 months.
The disruption had a massive impact on healthcare, tourism, journalism and education. It prevented people from downloading the latest news and guidance on COVID-19, and created an information vacuum when knowledge of the coronavirus was still evolving.
It also cut a lifeline for many heart patients.
Cardiologist Imran Hafeez had co-founded Save Heart Kashmir in 2017 so that a network of doctors could help their peers in remote villages with diagnoses and advice through WhatsApp during cardiac emergencies, where time is paramount.
There were about 1,200 doctors on board, responding to at least 50 requests a day. But with the internet blackout, “it all came to zero”, he said.
Nobody can tell how many patients died as a result, but many must have been affected, he added.
“There was a helplessness, but that wasn’t up to us — that was the government’s prerogative. What (are you going) to do? They had a security situation.”
Many people also lost their jobs. Tourism accounts for around 7 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s economy, but security concerns and the blackout frightened off tourists and made online bookings impossible. It would have been peak season before COVID-19.
Journalists were hamstrung, and when the government set up an internet centre with four computers, hundreds of them had to wait their turn to get 10 minutes of access, said journalist Fahad Shah, publisher of the Kashmir Walla multimedia platform.
The setback for education was staggering too. Trainee teacher Adleen Syed said she took 15 to 16 minutes to download a single page of the assignments given to her.
People were unable to update their phones or download e-learning apps on 2G speed easily, she noted. Classes for children were conducted on Zoom, but in a 40-minute class, half the time was wasted because of connectivity issues.
“So it becomes a necessity for (students) to take private tuition to complete their syllabus,” she added. “It’s a burden to their parents as well.”
The same frustration applies to Arshie Qureshi, co-founder of Mehram, a non-governmental organisation that addresses gender-based violence.
It is difficult for women living in the same household as their abusers to seek help, and “when you have the internet cut down, they’re not able to (send) that one simple text to anybody”, she said.
For women with court cases pending, the lack of 4G internet is another problem. “Without the internet, I haven’t been able to contact my lawyer. I’m too poor to travel to her office,” said domestic abuse victim Afreen.
She lives with her young daughter and uses internet protocol telephony, which means she cannot make voice calls without the internet. “If, God forbid, we fall ill or something happens, I’d be helpless,” she added.
Extended internet shutdowns would have a longer-term impact on the region and its people, Shah believes.
“With these continuous bans and the internet getting shut, it also adds to the hopelessness of the people, because younger people are like, ‘Let’s just move (away),’” he said.
“It’ll obviously impact the development of this region because then we won’t have (many) talented people in Kashmir.”