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Cost of Internet shutdowns

Digital India is now a reality. Demonetisation has reminded us of the state’s power over essential facilities in the economy and society, while the push towards a cashless India demonstrates the necessity of the mobile Internet for the economy. Family life and human relations in business processes, both within and between firms, are now dependent on the availability of digital communications, which is why the increasing spread of government-imposed Internet shutdowns throughout the country is a matter of concern. The restrictions can cancel peoples’ civil rights, imperil livelihoods, and cost businesses their ability to function.

In Digital India, every policy decision about the Internet affects the rights of citizens. In a cashless India — where Aadhaar numbers identify and control all buying and spending — every Indian’s privacy and freedom to participate in the market depends on Internet policies as well as the decisions of the Supreme Court concerning constitutional rights in the face of such policies. Before we can teach ourselves what is at stake, the technical and social “facts on the ground”, now being created at top speed, will have determined the nature of our political, social and economic life for generations to come. has released a real-time map of ongoing Internet shutdowns in India, along with resources for people to report shutdowns affecting them and information on the legalities and economic effects of these shutdowns. We can say, using data collected by and parties around the world, that just between 2014 and the end of 2015, Internet shutdowns cost Indian businesses almost $1 billion.

Insufficient justifications

The legal justifications offered for shutdowns, including the prevention of unlawful assembly, are far too narrow to sustain any measure with this breadth of undesired social consequence. Exigent circumstances may make it “reasonable” in our constitutional order to prohibit certain forms of speech. But a routine assertion of urgency is not sufficient justification for limiting all communications across the economic, educational and private lives of tens of millions of citizens. Another justification is that this is done to prevent the circulation of rumours. But rumours have been propagated by word of mouth since long before the printing of newspapers, let alone the adoption of the Internet.

The rights of technology users, and how to protect them, are the most important issues for the next five years in India. Living in Digital India can be either a blessing or a curse depending on how we carry our democratic values into this new age. Shutdowns, which are a negative expression of the idea of digital sovereignty, are not just for undemocratic societies any more. How we cope with this issue has much to say about whether Digital India can be, and will be, a positive example to the world.

Mishi Choudhary is executive director of Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a donor-supported legal services organisation. Eben Moglen is founding-director of SFLC and professor of law and legal history at Columbia University

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 7:08:21 PM |

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