Are Internet shutdowns healthy for India?

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In today’s world, there are high social and economic costs for repeated and prolonged suspension of Internet connectivity. The government could do worse than rethink the effectiveness and advisability of using it as a tool to curb dissent or maintain stability.

In this day and age, daily life and business take a serious hit if communication services are disabled willy-nilly. | Reuters

Internet services were suspended in India’s northeastern States to control the ongoing protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. Delhi has suffered a comparatively milder clampdown with the suspension of telecom services. The Internet shutdown in Kashmir post the dilution of Article 370 has now exceeded 100 days. While public safety, national security and spread of misinformation are the most commonly stated reasons, there have been instances such as the one in Rajasthan in 2018 wherein Internet services were suspended to prevent cheating in examinations.

India now ranks at the top among countries with the most Internet shutdowns, accounting for 134 of the 196 documented shutdowns in 2018, as reported by Access Now. We are followed by our neighbours Pakistan with 12 reported shutdowns, and Yemen, Iraq, Ethiopia & Bangladesh, each with greater than five shutdowns. A tracker maintained by the Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre reports 91 shutdowns in 2019. The most protracted Internet shutdown in India, lasting 133 days, was enforced in Kashmir in 2016 after the killing of Burhan Wani. The current communications blockade in Kashmir, since August 4 2019, is well poised to break this dubious record.

High social and economic costs and questionable effectiveness

Arbitrary Internet shutdowns are not only an attack on the civil liberties and the constitutional rights of the citizens, by the State, but they have grave economic consequences too, with businesses and working professionals losing out on sales and job days. Moreover, it is suspect whether these shutdowns help in achieving the stated goals of maintaining law and order.

Internet and communications shutdowns, when in place, violate the fundamental freedom of expression. Access to the Internet brings to the fore voices from across the political spectrum, significantly increasing agency — perhaps the reason governments are wary of the Internet. People depend on the Internet to communicate with friends and family, share news and knowledge, and to hold public institutions accountable. So, it is certainly morally questionable to strip people of a fundamental right by indiscriminately disabling communications. Internet shutdowns not only curb dissent, but they give governments excessive control over the dissemination of information and a dominance over the narrative. Regular and indiscriminate shutdowns can have chilling effects on free speech in the long run.

The United Nations declared the Internet as a fundamental right in 2016. From Uber drivers to restaurants to garments shop owners, everyone depends on the Internet to facilitate their businesses. Unavailability of Internet leads to tangible monetary losses for these professionals. Students also increasingly rely on online resources for their education. Many government programmes and schemes such as food distribution & management through ration shops, Direct Benefit Transfers (DBTs), digital payments through the United Payments Interface (UPI) are built on the backbone of Internet and Communications Technology. A report by Deloitte estimates losses of 0.4%-2% of daily Gross Domestic Product for each day of Internet shutdown. Arbitrary disruptions in these services lead to productivity losses and continued low investments in the economy.

 

Democratic governments must be accountable to the public and provide a rationale for disrupting Internet services in a timely manner. This is the way civil society can hold governments to the high standards of transparency and accountability that befits a democracy.

 

There is no conclusive evidence showing that Internet shutdowns lead to maintenance or restoration of public order. Jan Rydzak of Stanford Global Digital Policy Incubator notes in a 2019 study that, ‘information blackouts compel participants in collective action in India to substitute non-violent tactics for violent ones that are less reliant on effective communication and coordination.’ Thus it becomes incumbent to ask, when, if at all, Internet shutdowns are a valid response to protests.

The way forward

Before completing blocking the Internet, it is essential to conduct a proportionality and necessity test. It is crucial to consider whether the same objective can be achieved by a less intrusive and more effective solution. It is also essential to conduct a cost-benefit analysis and choose a measure that minimises the short-term and long-term social and economic costs incurred.

For example, in the Rajasthan cheating case, the objective could have been met by restricting the entry of mobile phones into the examination halls, better invigilation, or even using signal-jammers in the halls. On December 28, 2014, an explosion occurred in Church Street, Bengaluru. Misinformation began to spread on social media, sometimes giving the blast a communal tinge. Bengaluru police quickly dismissed rumours by effectively engaging on its Facebook and Twitter pages thus preventing an escalation.

Democratic governments must be accountable to the public and provide a rationale for disrupting Internet services in a timely manner. In the interest of transparency, all governments should document the reasons, time, alternatives considered, decision-making authorities and the rules under which the shutdowns were imposed and release the documents for public scrutiny. This is the way civil society can hold governments to the high standards of transparency and accountability that befits a democracy.

Indiscriminate Internet blockades are not likely to safeguard public order in today’s time and age. Indiscriminate shutdowns have high social and economic costs and are often ineffective. A proportionality and necessity test and cost-benefit analysis to determine the right course of action are essential at this juncture. Indian civil society needs to push for a transparent and accountable system which ensures better Internet governance.

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