India, the world’s largest democracy with a population of 1.3 billion, about half of which are Internet users, is the world leader in Internet shutdowns according to a report issued this month by digital rights non-profit Access Now.
The South Asian giant was the worst Internet disruptor last year, as it was in 2018 and 2019, accounting for 70% of at least 155 shutdowns documented by Access Now in 29 countries.
There were at least 109 Internet shutdowns in India last year, compared to six in Yemen, the second-worst disruptor, stated the report, Shattered Dreams And Lost Opportunities: A year in the fight to #KeepItOn.
The Indian government say shutdowns are justified if they can prevent violence. Enforcing laws against fake news becomes impossible once the falsehoods have gone viral, they argue.
But digital access advocates are against the idea. Not only are Internet shutdowns undemocratic and a violation of human rights, there also are more nuanced ways in which governments can tackle disinformation.
Last year, India’s Internet disruption lasted 8,927 hours, including 7,272 hours of bandwidth throttling — the intentional slowdown of Internet service — exacting an economic cost of nearly US$2.8 billion (S$3.75 billion), according to United Kingdom-based digital privacy firm Top10VPN.
Myanmar had the next-highest duration of disruption among the 21 countries on Top10VPN’s list, with 5,160 hours of blackouts in the Chin and Rakhine states and 3,648 hours of bandwidth throttling.
Officials in India justified the Internet shutdowns by citing national security and public safety, or in terms of fighting fake news and hate speech, Access Now noted in its report. On two occasions, shutdowns were to prevent cheating in examinations.
“We have a duty to protect the lives of people in the best way we think is possible,” said Sudesh Verma, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
“And (in) that moment of emotion which can lead to violence, if you can prevent that, then that’s a good thing.”
Last month, the Indian government announced new social media rules to curb misuse like the spread of fake news. But he feels that filtering out disinformation is harder than it seems.
“One way is that you arrest everyone, (in which case) it’s big chaos that’s going to happen,” Verma said. “The other way is you shut down the way it is spread.”
The region that has borne the brunt of India’s Internet shutdowns is Jammu and Kashmir.
In August 2019, a day before the central government revoked a clause in India’s Constitution that gave the territory semi-autonomous status, the Internet was cut off. Only in January last year was 2G Internet access allowed.
Fixed-line broadband connection was restored last March. But 4G service continued to be blocked even as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. Officials said it was to prevent the spread of fake news and “provocative videos”, and the coordination of terror activities.
The Foundation for Media Professionals fought this blanket ban on high-speed Internet until Feb. 05, when 4G Internet was restored to the entire territory — after 18 months.
The disruption had a massive impact on healthcare, tourism, journalism and education. It prevented people from downloading the latest news and guidance on COVID-19, and created an information vacuum when knowledge of the coronavirus was still evolving.
Many people also lost their jobs. Tourism accounts for around 7% of Jammu and Kashmir’s economy, but security concerns and the blackout frightened off tourists and made online bookings impossible. It would have been peak season before COVID-19.
Journalists were hamstrung, and when the government set up an Internet centre with four computers, hundreds of them had to wait their turn to get 10 minutes of access, said journalist Fahad Shah, publisher of the Kashmir Walla multimedia platform.
Extended Internet shutdowns would have a longer-term impact on the region and its people, Shah believes.
“With these continuous bans and the Internet getting shut, it also adds to the hopelessness of the people, because younger people are like, ‘Let’s just move (away),’” he said.
“It’ll obviously impact the development of this region because then we won’t have (many) talented people in Kashmir.” (Source: CNA)