Centre for Internet & Society

Strap: Technology activists, lawyers, politicians and NGOs weigh in on the spate of internet shutdowns in India in 2017.

Bangalore, Karnataka: For thousands of years, military sieges have been an effective means of depriving a population into submission. Attackers would surround the fort or city and simply wait for the food to run out. In today’s connected age, you can mount a successful siege remotely with a single signed order that can shut down the internet and practically bring life to a standstill.

So, it’s not surprising that inter-governmental organisations and NGOs around the world are starting to promote the idea that access to internet is a fundamental right, and watchdogs declare any deliberate interference to this access to be a violation of human rights. “In today’s modern digital world, shutting down mobile and internet networks is a drastic action that infringes on everyone’s rights and is inherently disproportionate. Internet shutdowns cut off everyone’s ability to speak and access information, regardless of whether they have done anything wrong. Considering the broad harm to rights that shutdowns can cause, government officials should certainly take them more seriously as a human rights violation,” says Cynthia Wong, senior internet researcher at Human Rights Watch.

But in India, there is no legal recourse yet against such decisions. In 2015, a Public Interest Litigation filed in the Gujarat High Court against a week-long internet shutdown was dismissed (as was a Special Leave Petition filed in the Supreme Court in 2016 challenging this decision). In fact, tech entrepreneur and Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekar attributes the dramatic increase in the number of internet blocks in 2017, which has doubled since last year, to this ruling. “This dramatic increase in the number of internet blocks can be attributed to the Supreme Court ruling in February 2016 which upheld the right of districts and states to ban mobile internet services for maintaining law and order .”

Typically, mobile internet bans were enforced under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which can prohibit assembly of more than four people and is usually invoked by a district magistrate. “Indeed, mobs come together due to the spread of misinformation over internet services such as Facebook and WhatsApp,” says Chandrasekar. “However, internet shutdowns also disabled authentic news organisations who can dispel such misinformation. I have argued that governments and administrations do have the right to shut down internet or take down content  consistent with the Constitution’s Article 19 guarantee of fundamental right to free speech being subject to reasonable restrictions. So, the debate is not whether the government has a right to temporarily shut down the internet or not, but does the government or administration use this right reasonably and with clear guidelines,” he warns.

Enter the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency of Public Safety) Rules that were released in August. The primary concern of tech activists is that these ‘Suspension Rules’ set a dangerous precedent because they legalise internet shutdowns where ideally there should be none. But these rules also received a wary welcome.

"Use of an archaic law like Section 144 of CrPC for shutting down the internet is not justified. The new rules seem to have been hastily put together without much forethought," according to Prasanth Sugathan, legal director at Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC). “There is no transparency on how these rules were drafted as there was no consultation with the stakeholders. These rules are not conducive to ensuring the right to internet access of citizens which is essential for the success of initiatives like Digital India. As regulations go, these aren’t particularly robust, giving central and state governments the power to shut down telecom services, without having to cite further reasoning than “public safety” and “national security”. In fact, the rules don’t even specify a maximum duration after which services must be restored."

Calling the whole deal shoddy, Sugathan says it seems like they were put out just to subvert the illegality of Internet shutdowns.

Chandrasekar also feels the process should have been more consultation-driven. “The rules can and must be improved to remove adhocism and arbitrary use. As I say repeatedly, these kinds of government policies run the real risk of straying from the reasonable restrictions acceptable to our Constitution to an infringement of the Right to Expression. Governments, especially political leadership, should be careful that bureaucratic lack of imagination or paranoia or simply laziness doesn’t cause that crossover from right to wrong.”

According to SFLC, which has been tracking internet shutdowns in the country over the past five years, authorities in India have shut down networks 60 times just in 2017, spelling a staggering cost to the economy beyond the incalculable harm to human rights. Brookings estimated that the 22 network shutdowns in India from 2015-2016 cost the country’s economy $968 million. It’s baffling that while the government is pushing citizens to embrace ‘Digital India’ on one hand, they are concurrently pulling the rug from underneath these same users with these total and partial internet shutdowns. “From the perspective of promoting India’s digital economy, if people learn they cannot rely on their mobile phone service because of arbitrary disruptions, they are less likely to adopt digital technologies. If the Indian government truly wants to be a global leader in the digital age, it should cease all arbitrary and overbroad restrictions on internet access,” says Wong.

Osama Manzer, founder of Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), has an ever-expanding roster of people who were keenly affected by the shutdowns in their regions, irrespective of whether it last three days or three months. “One of the biggest impacts is that residents must live with is that their access to basic services becomes very limited. In Darjeeling, many state government employees were not paid their salaries because the banking system is online and centralised. The livelihood of sim card sellers and recharge shop owners, internet cafes and mom-and-pop shops that offer printing, scanning, online form filling services took a huge hit. It is especially detrimental to them since they rely on daily sales for their income,” he says.

While the economic impact of internet shutdowns has been documented, the social and psychological impact is just as crucial to investigate, says Manzer, especially in cases where these shutdowns are frequent and long term. DEF is in the final stages of releasing a report based on such a research. “We've found through our research that when shutdowns are ordered for a few days, residents can reason it out and some even find justifications for it. They may say the security and safety circumstances warranted it. But prolonged shutdowns have an acute negative impact on residents psychologically. Residents of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and J&K feel the impact of internet shutdowns acutely. They feel doubly isolated from the rest of the country and their faith in the government erodes. People we've interviewed have said they feel helpless and panicked. Some interviewees in Kashmir went so far as to question the democratic process and their right to it.”

Ayswarya Murthy is a Bangalore-based journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

Shutdown stories are the output of a collaboration between 101 Reporters and CIS with support from Facebook.

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