For the fifth consecutive year, India has topped the list of countries which shut down the internet, with at least 84 shutdowns recorded in 2022. In their report titled ‘Weapons of control, shields of impunity: Internet shutdowns in 2022’, digital civil rights organisation Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition quantify internet shutdowns across the world in 2022. Access Now’s Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP) recorded 187 internet shutdowns in 35 countries last year, with 84 of them observed in India alone. This is above even war-hit Ukraine, where the second-highest number of internet shutdowns (22) in the world was recorded, imposed by the Russian military during its occupation of the country. Iran followed with 18 shutdowns, some of them during massive protests over the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.
Since 2016, India has accounted for nearly 58% of all global shutdowns recorded by Access Now. This year, 84 recorded shutdowns is actually an improvement for India, which recorded over 100 shutdowns every year from 2018 to 2021. However, Access Now says this does not necessarily reflect a positive change overall. With the government often failing to publicly release shutdown orders and other challenges in monitoring shutdowns, the report acknowledges that several shutdowns may have gone unrecorded in the study.
It also mentions that the draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022 proposed empowering state and Union governments “with unrestricted powers to impose shutdowns”, which “signals the government’s intention to continue down this troublesome path, violating fundamental rights of expression and assembly and providing opportunities to cover up human rights abuses.” The report also observes that apart from shutdowns, Indian authorities have also increased censorship by blocking websites and issuing takedown orders to social media platforms.
Image credit: Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition's report on internet shutdowns in 2022
Authorities disrupted internet access at least 49 times in Jammu and Kashmir in 2022 due to political instability and violence. In 2021, around 80% of all shutdowns in India were in Jammu and Kashmir, compared to 58% in 2022. While Jammu and Kashmir recorded the highest number of shutdowns this year too, Rajasthan (12) and West Bengal (7) followed in second and third place. Jharkhand and Haryana recorded four shutdowns each, while most other states recorded one or no shutdown. Among south Indian states and union territories, only one shutdown was recorded in Andhra Pradesh’s Konaseema, where violence had erupted over the government decision to name the district after BR Ambedkar.
Regardless of the total number of shutdowns documented, people in Jammu and Kashmir lived through much of 2022 with “near-continuous disruptions and poor quality of service in the rare intervening moments of connectivity,” as did people in Myanmar’s Sagaing and Magway regions and Chin state, the report finds.
Most of the shutdowns were imposed as a response to protests, communal violence, exams, or elections. In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, the most commonly cited reason was political instability. In Rajasthan, one shutdown was announced during a Holi procession, and one during an election. Most other instances were related to communal violence, or protests following communal or caste violence. In two of the seven shutdowns in West Bengal, the government said it was intended to curb cheating or leaking of question papers during exams. Recently on February 25, the Rajasthan government suspended internet services in many cities reportedly to avoid a question paper leak during the Rajasthan Eligibility Examination For Teachers (REET) 2023.
The shutdowns impacted the daily lives of lakhs of people in 2022. The study points to news reports that talk about the benefits of restoring internet connectivity for women and small business owners in Jammu and Kashmir, and a food delivery worker from Meghalaya who couldn’t find work on days that the internet was suspended. It says that internet shutdowns aren’t just resurging after the pandemic but lasting longer, targeting specific populations, and being wielded when people need internet the most — such as times of humanitarian crises, mass protests, and war.
Governments across the world have also been trying to implement shutdowns which directly target certain groups, by blocking certain platforms or services, according to the report. “In 2022, 23 countries implemented or maintained 28 communications platform blocks… Authorities and other actors, such as military aggressors, continued to impose targeted mobile network shutdowns. This was a popular tactic during protests (26 times), as a means of silencing people while allowing wealthy elites, government officials, and certain businesses to operate on broadband, fixed-cable internet,” the report says.
Shutdowns are often imposed with the goal of asserting control and silencing dissent, besides providing cover for human rights abuses by authorities, the report notes, adding that all internet shutdowns violate human rights. “In 2022, 133 of the 187 total shutdowns occurred alongside some form of violence, compared to 112 in 2021, 99 in 2020, and 75 in 2019. In some contexts, like Iran, authorities responded to protests with brutal crackdowns and internet shutdowns, and in other contexts, such as during conflicts and war, governments, warring parties, or military regimes deployed shutdowns in apparent attempts to hide human rights and humanitarian law violations such as murder, torture, rape, and other war crimes,” it says.
Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn campaign manager at Access Now, says, “In 2022, from targeted blockings in the Jammu and Kashmir region, to knee-jerk shutdowns seeking to crush public protest, authorities in India worked hard to exert further control over India’s online sphere. But, slowly, they’re learning that the world is watching, and people are fighting back.”
Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international counsel and Asia Pacific policy director at Access Now, refers to the 84 shutdowns in India in 2022 as “84 attacks on fundamental rights across the world’s biggest democracy.” With India chairing the G20 this year, and the 2024 general elections soon approaching, “these disruptions are jeopardising the future of India’s tech economy and digital livelihood ambitions,” he adds.