In just a little over a month in 2021, there have been seven shutdowns so far.

A visual from the farmer's protest with three of them holding up their phones
Atom Rights Thursday, February 04, 2021 - 16:59

Pop singer Rihanna's tweet asking why the world wasn't discussing the farmers' protest in India was linked to a CNN article on the internet shutdown around Delhi. While the Union government and several celebrities have rushed to defend the move, implying that this was an "internal issue", the fact remains that internet shutdowns have become the go-to measure for the Union government to clamp down on dissent. Last week, internet services were snapped by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in large areas where the farm protests were on, such as Singhu, Ghazipur, Tikri, Mukarba Chowk, Nangloi and their adjoining areas within the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi. A large number of mobile subscribers were unable to access the internet, with some reports putting it at almost 50 million. While it is unlikely that WiFi connections were impacted, the number of WiFi users is abysmally low, as it is primarily used in public spaces and offices.  

According to Internet Shutdowns, a tracker by SFLC.in, India saw 83 shutdowns in 2020, and in just a little over a month in 2021, there have been seven shutdowns so far. India shut off the internet 83 times in 2020, a year in which the country was in the middle of a pandemic, which made internet access all the more significant. According to reports on  yet-to-be published data by Access Now and the KeepItOn coalition, India ranked 1 in the world in terms of internet shutdowns.

A joint statement by the Internet Freedom Foundation, Free Software Movement of India and the Software Freedom Law Center (which runs Internet Shutdowns) after the internet shutdown during the farmers’ protest, said it fears that internet shutdowns have become “the government's routine response to protests”.

Stating that the internet shutdown orders were “impermissibly vague”, the statement added that internet shutdowns may be counterproductive. “...empirical studies suggest that internet shutdowns incentivize disorganized violence by cutting off channels for communication and coordination which are necessary for planned peaceful protests. There is already substantial police and paramilitary presence at the protest sites to identify and stop individuals who may be engaging in illegal activities, and a blanket internet shutdown which deprives lakhs of people of internet access is wholly unnecessary,” the statement said. 

“The harm caused by these internet shutdowns outweigh any speculative benefit,” the statement added, noting that it inconveniences those who live around the protest sites.

Internet Shutdowns puts the longest internet shutdown at 213 days in Kashmir after Article 370 was abrogated, from August 4, 2019 to March 4, 2020. The internet can only be accessed on 2G, which will continue till February 6, and this is likely to be extended. The Jammu and Kashmir administration had said that postpaid SIM card holders will be given access to the internet and prepaid SIM holders will not. 4G services are currently available in and restricted to only two districts — Ganderbal in Kashmir and Udhampur in Jammu, which have had 4G since August 2020. 

It was in January 2020 that the Supreme Court said that the ban in Jammu and Kashmir without a fixed duration was a violation of telecom rules as well as that of freedom of speech and expression. Internet shutdowns are done by way of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, passed into law in 2017. Internet shutdowns under this have been limited to 15 days by the court. In Jammu and Kashmir, the extension of the order to restrict internet speeds has now become a fortnightly occurrence, and has also slipped from public memory in the rest of the country. 

Apart from Jammu and Kashmir and now for the farmers’ protests, the internet has been shut down for protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, and even to curb cheating during the Pu­blic Service Combined Co­mpetitive (Prelims) examination in Arunachal Pradesh.

As Medianama founder Nikhil Pahwa wrote on Twitter, shutting down the internet is an act of desperation.

“An Internet shutdown is a suspension of our fundamental right to free speech. When the medium of enabling speech such as the Internet is shut, it has a disproportionate effect of censorship. 2G barely works, so it is no different from an Internet Shutdown,” he wrote. 

Internet Freedom Foundation Executive Director Apar Gupta tweeted that internet shutdowns “are not a solution to disinformation or the breach of law and order”.

“High speed internet serves as an important tool for accountability & digital assembly. Quite often in peaceful protest it is one of the few ways how safety & documenting excessive physical force (sic). This may not suit state or political goals but is vital for democracy,” he wrote.

Apart from clamping down on the rights of citizens, there are also very real costs to India shutting down internet or throttling speeds. According to a report by Top10VPN, India imposed internet shutdowns for 1,655 hours in 2020, but throttled bandwidth for much longer, at 7,272 hours. Throttling bandwidth ensures that the internet is extremely slow to use. In terms of economic costs, Top10VPN put the figure at $2.8bn, but estimates it to be higher. This figure alone is estimated to be 70% of the world’s cost of shutting off the internet.

As lawyer and international public policy counsel Raman Jit Singh Chima wrote in the Times of India, “It is irreconcilable that the world's largest democracy can allow for internet shutdowns to be regularly ordered with an absence of any direct judicial oversight of these extraordinary powers.”

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