Are Internet Shutdowns in India Really the Solution?
A pattern we have noticed in recent years is the Indian Government shutting down the Internet as a means to control law and order, whether it is in Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Manipur, Bihar or as quite recently seen in Haryana.
These Internet shutdowns have a significant impact on daily life, rendering people unable to access essential medical, educational, and financial services.
One notable instance occurred in August 2019 when the Indian government imposed an all-communication blackout in Jammu and Kashmir. This included the suspension of landlines, fixed-line Internet, and mobile networks.
The government’s objective was to prevent the organisation of protests by Kashmiris following the revocation of the state’s constitutional autonomous status, leading to its division into two distinct federally governed territories.
Although some services were gradually reinstated, mobile 4G internet access remained effectively inaccessible for over 500 days until February 2021.
Mobile internet usage is prevalent among 96 per cent of the population, making the shutdown’s impact far-reaching and affecting virtually every facet of daily life.
Consider how frequently you rely on the Internet throughout your day. For entertainment, information, job applications, education, connecting with loved ones, monitoring developments, making purchases, travel arrangements, ticketing, and studying.
It permeates every aspect of our lives, and its significance becomes most apparent when it is suddenly stripped away.
The duration of the 2019-2021 internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir was unprecedented, but it exemplifies a troubling trend where Indian authorities routinely employ internet shutdowns as a default policing tactic.
These shutdowns are used for a range of reasons, including quelling protests, stifling criticism of the government, and even preventing cheating during school examinations.
Since 2018, India has led the world in the frequency of internet shutdowns, far surpassing any other nation. In 2022, for the fifth consecutive year, India was responsible for the highest number of shutdowns, with 84 out of 187 globally.
Although this data is up to December 2022, it’s noteworthy that in March 2023, the entire state of Punjab experienced a three-day mobile internet blackout as authorities sought to apprehend a separatist leader.
In May, Manipur state endured weeks of complete internet blockage, affecting both mobile and fixed-line services, following violent ethnic clashes.
What does the Government Have to Say?
Government authorities argue that these shutdowns are necessary to curb violence that can be fueled by rumours circulated on social media or mobile messaging applications.
However, this widespread and frequent use of internet shutdowns raises significant concerns about freedom of expression and access to essential services.
However, are internet shutdowns the only possible solutions to maintain law and order? On the one side, the government is promoting a digital India, and on the other, they are putting an indefinite ban on the Internet in certain areas.
At a time when a majority of the population is dependent on the Internet for their simple day-to-day tasks like purchasing groceries and making payments for their cab ride, how would they attain their basic needs?
With 50+ shutdowns and counting, India is on its way to retaining its title of Global leader in Internet shutdowns for the sixth consecutive year.
Reasons Cited by the Government Behind the Frequent Internet Shutdowns in India
Public Safety and Security
One of the primary justifications for the frequent internet shutdowns in India is to ensure public safety and security. These shutdowns are often implemented during times of civil unrest, protests, or communal tensions to mitigate various risks and challenges.
Shutdowns may also be enacted during natural disasters or emergencies to effectively manage communication channels and prevent the inadvertent spread of panic or misinformation.
Preventing the Spread of Misinformation
Internet shutdowns help prevent the rapid dissemination of misinformation and fake news during times of crisis. By limiting access to social media platforms and messaging apps, authorities aim to curb the circulation of false information that can incite panic or exacerbate ongoing tensions.
Curbing Protest Organisation
Another important consideration is the control of protest organisations through online platforms. The Internet plays a crucial role in mobilising and coordinating protests, which can sometimes lead to mass gatherings and potential security threats.
Temporarily suspending internet services can disrupt these organisational efforts and reduce the likelihood of large-scale protests turning violent.
Ensuring National Security
Internet shutdowns are implemented in the interest of national security to counteract potential terrorist activities and security threats or to safeguard the confidentiality of critical operations.
Addressing Hate Speech and Disinformation
Governments may order internet shutdowns as a means to contain hate speech, rumours, and fake news that have the potential to incite violence or disrupt social harmony.
Managing Social Media Usage
The suspension of specific social media platforms or applications can be employed to regulate the dissemination of information during sensitive events or to address concerns regarding privacy and security.
Preserving Academic Integrity
On occasions, internet services are temporarily halted during significant examinations to deter cheating and the unauthorised dissemination of exam materials.
To Control Content Distribution
Internet shutdowns can also be used to prevent the circulation of particular content, such as videos or images considered harmful or objectionable.
Regulating Protests and Dissent
In some instances, internet shutdowns are imposed with the intention of quelling dissent and thwarting the coordination of protests or opposition movements against the government.
What are the Effects of the Internet Shutdown?
Apart from being a violation of basic human rights, when the Internet gets shut down, it also causes several other problems.
Social media and internet shutdowns cause a real economic challenge that does not just impact individuals but the entire country by causing direct unemployment and economic loss.
Let’s take, for example, the Kashmir scenario when the communication blockade went on for six months. According to a report, as a result of such a long blockade, more than five lakh people lost their jobs. And in 2021, Rajasthan lost Rs 800 crore because of internet shutdowns that lasted just one month.
Another report suggests that in 2022, at the national level, internet shutdowns cost more than Rs 1,500 crore, and the figures are even worse in 2023.
Just in the first half of 2023, the approximate losses incurred by the Indian economy have surpassed the losses of 2022, around Rs 2,091 crore.
However, this is not new news; a Brookings paper estimated in 2016 that shutdowns between July 2015 and June 2016 had caused a loss of Rs 7,932 crores to the Indian economy.
These figures, while astonishing, do not showcase the entire picture because not all shutdowns are reported, and they don’t include jobs in the informal sector.
They also don’t consider that some groups, especially women and those in the informal sector, are hit harder by these shutdowns.
The frequent use of internet shutdowns by the Indian government raises critical questions about their effectiveness and the broader impact on society.
While the government cites reasons such as public safety, preventing misinformation, and national security, the consequences of these shutdowns are far-reaching and multifaceted.
In light of economic and social consequences, it becomes imperative to explore alternative means of maintaining law and order that do not infringe upon the fundamental rights and livelihoods of citizens.
The challenge lies in striking a balance between security concerns and preserving the free flow of information and economic stability in the digital age.