Net loss: on Citizenship Amendment Act protests


Disruption of connectivity should be resorted to only in the face of specific threats

The shutting down of the Internet in Delhi and several States as a response to growing protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, is unsophisticated and deeply damaging to social life and the economy. Meghalaya, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh were entirely cut off, and parts of Assam, West Bengal, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh were deprived of Internet access, in clumsy attempts to quell demonstrations. Such ham-handed interventions have won for India a place at the head of the table among intolerant countries that routinely shut down the Internet to block criticism of the government. Jammu and Kashmir is now acknowledged globally as a dark spot on the Internet, with service there blocked since August 4. After protests against the CAA began, other States are also experiencing shutdowns, and the fate of connectivity is being decided by officers empowered by the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 under the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, or Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. A disruption is an extreme measure, and should be countenanced only for a specific threat, and as an interim measure as official communications fill the information vacuum. A case in point is the spreading of rumours on child lifters on social media, which resulted in several lynchings. The net blackout of the kind being witnessed now, however, has little to do with rumours, and is clearly aimed at muzzling the protests.

The Prime Minister, who has fashioned himself as a digital first leader, issued a Twitter appeal to people in Assam on the CAA, but they did not get it as they had no net. The NDA government should also be aware that the connectivity chokehold applied on J&K is proving lethal to entrepreneurship, crippling a new generation running start-ups and promoting women’s employment. A disrupted Internet is dealing a blow to digital financial transactions across several States, to e-governance initiatives, and economic productivity. It affects education and skill-building, as the Kerala High Court affirmed in an order holding access to the net a fundamental right that could not be denied arbitrarily. The court pointed out that the apprehension of a gadget being misused is not a legitimate ground for denial of service, and the government should act on specific complaints. Yet, since 2015, shutdowns have been rising — 134 in 2018 — and the NDA seems unwilling to change course. It seems to matter little that blunt interventions make the ambitious goal of growing into a $5-trillion economy even more unrealistic, or that India is losing face as a democracy because it chooses to sit with authoritarian regimes. That is the wrong road to take. Reform and progress vitally need the net.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 6:51:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/net-loss-on-citizenship-amendment-act-caa-protests/article30362007.ece

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