In the past few years, India has imposed the lion’s share of Internet shutdowns across the world. The country witnessed a marked increase in the number of shutdowns since 2016 – ordering 121 of 213 documented shutdowns in 2019, and 109 of 155 documented shutdowns in 2020.
An Internet shutdown, an intentional disruption of access to Internet-based communications, impacts a certain section of the population, location or mode of access, primarily to impede the flow of information, and can be seen as an extension of traditional forms of censorship. Governments order Internet shutdowns for a number of reasons such as political instability, national security, elections, protests, public safety, communal violence, etc.
Frequent and Lengthy Outages
The northern-most part of India, the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), is perhaps where this trend on part of the government of India is most pronounced. In 2021 alone, the government of J&K ordered 93 orders for the suspension of Internet services. This followed a protracted Internet blackout in J&K that lasted 18 months – from 5 August, 2019 until 5 February, 2021, when 4G mobile data services were reinstated in the region. This is one of the longest Internet shutdowns recorded in a democracy.
About 90% of Indians who have access to the Internet, use a mobile device and mobile data services to connect to the Internet. In this context, the approximately 14 million people who call J&K home bear an especially brutal brunt of the arbitrary Internet shutdowns ordered locally in some districts or regionally in J&K – most of which are arbitrarily ordered and difficult to track due to their hyper-local nature.
Internet Access Protected by Constitution
This is despite the fact that India is one of the few countries in the world to have codified rules that must be adhered to in order to shut down the Internet. Introduced in 2017, the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules state that shutdowns can only be ordered by the home secretary of the federal or state governments, and no other officers. Further, the rules also increase transparency by specifying the criteria that a shutdown should meet, thus laying down the process that must be followed while ordering a shutdown. In 2020, the Supreme Court of India declared that access to the Internet is protected by the country’s constitution as it is a medium to exercise the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and expression and the right to practice any trade or profession.
However, non-compliance with the 2017 Rules and the 2020 judgement is commonplace, and officers at the grassroots level in India, called district magistrates, continue to order localized Internet shutdowns often without elaborating on the details necessitating the shutdown.
Increased Dependency on the Internet
People are increasingly dependent on the Internet to work, access information, access health, education and social services, bank and pay bills, engage in recreation, etc. The Covid19 pandemic has only proven that for those of us with access to it, the Internet is a fundamental part of our lives and has a role to play in almost every aspect of what we choose to do. Following demonetization, internet-based payments and the various Digital India initiatives necessitate a stable and reliable Internet service for individuals, organizations, businesses and e-government functions.
Shutdowns Result in Economic Losses
In 2021, estimates peg India’s economic losses at $582.8 million due to Internet shutdowns and bandwidth throttling, which makes it one of the highest in the world resulting from Internet shutdowns. In 2020, the country is estimated to have lost $2.8 billion due to shutdowns. According to some sources, the 18-month shutdown in J&K cost the region $4.2 billion. Other estimates suggest that as many as 150,000 jobs were lost during this protracted shutdown in Kashmir, and equally impacted small- and medium-sized businesses, start-ups, entrepreneurs, journalists, and students, not to mention every person looking to access health services and information online due to the pandemic.
It is imperative that access to the Internet is not disrupted to serve political goals. The governments of India and J&K should adhere to the 2017 Rules as well as honour the 2020 Supreme Court judgement. The Internet is essentially a force for good, and adds great value to the lives of those who have access.