In 2015-2016, internet shutdowns cost India Rs 6,485 crore in lost business opportunities.
According to a non-binding resolution passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2016, access to internet is a basic human right. What does that mean in India? Nothing.
An ongoing study conducted by the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), which provides pro bono legal representation and related services to not-for-profit developers of free software/open source software, found that India has seen 29 instances of internet shutdown in the first seven months of 2017 — all in the name of preserving law and order.
That is just two less than the total number of internet shutdowns in India in 2016. Yes. At the slightest sign of civil unrest, authorities suspended mobile internet and broadband services this year.
How bad is it?
According to the study, 49 of the 73 instances — the number has risen to 88 at the time of writing — targeted mobile internet services, while 10 targeted both mobile and fixed-line services. The study also states that no shutdown targeted fixed-line internet services alone, and the targets of 14 shutdowns are unknown.
27 of the 73 recorded shutdowns lasted for less than a day, 17 lasted between one and three days, and 16 lasted for more than three days. No information is available on the duration of 13 shutdowns. Of the 73 shutdowns recorded since 2012, 37 were imposed in anticipation of law and order problems, while 36 instances were imposed in response to an ongoing law and order problem.
“Indian authorities’ concerns over the misuse of the internet and social media should not be the default option to prevent social unrest,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“The lack of transparency and failure to explain these shutdowns only further the perception that they are meant to suppress nonviolent reporting and criticism of the government.”
Leading the list in terms of internet shutdowns is Kashmir Valley, a region that has been regularly on the receiving end of human rights violations.
In 2017, there have so far been 10 cases of internet suspensions (and a total of 40 internet shutdowns since 2011) in the conflict-torn region due to various incidents; most recently due to the terrorist attack on Amarnath pilgrims. In 2016, internet services in the Valley were suspended for around 17 days at a stretch after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.
In May 2017, David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, and Michel Forst, the special rapporteur on human rights defenders, condemned the restrictions on the internet and social media services in Jammu and Kashmir, stressing that the scope of the restrictions undermined “the Government’s stated aim of preventing dissemination of information that could lead to violence”.
“The internet and telecommunications bans have the character of collective punishment [and] fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression,” Kaye added.
The other states where internet services have been clamped down are Haryana (five instances), Madhya Pradesh (one instance), Rajasthan (three instances), Uttar Pradesh (two instances), West Bengal (three instances), Nagaland (two instances), Maharashtra (one instance) and Odisha (two instances).
While the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on July 1, 2016 condemning network disruptions and measures adopted by states to curb online access and/or dissemination of information, Victorian-era laws still followed by India are a big hurdle in the UNHRC’s goal. Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act of 1885 allows the central or state governments to restrict or interfere with the transmission of messages.
Section 69A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act of 2008 allows the government to block specific websites and pages in “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State”.
Internet is a key enabler of fundamental rights like freedom of speech and expression. Frequent disruptions through internet clampdown threaten the democratic fabric of our nation. However, what the government fails to see — besides the fact that actions like these are unconstitutional — is that this is stalling India’s economic growth.
In 2015-2016, internet shutdowns cost India Rs 6,485 crore in lost business opportunities. A Brookings Institution study of 19 countries suggests that the maximum loss was incurred by India ($968 million), followed by Saudi Arabia ($465 million) and Morocco ($320 million).
Additionally a PWC report commissioned by Facebook states that India’s GDP would rise by Rs 67 lakh crore by 2020, if 100 per cent Indians had access to the internet. The report cautions: “As the digital economy expands, it will become even more expensive for nations to shut down the internet… Without coordinated action by the international community, this damage is likely to accelerate in the future and further weaken global economic development.”
“A modern India that wants technology for development cannot at the same time be haphazardly invoking national security to deny people access to essential information and services,” said Meenakshi Ganguly. Yet, clampdowns continue ever so often. How long will it take the government to realise that its Digital India dreams have to go hand in hand with the civil liberties of citizens?
Pushing, if not coercing, citizens into opting for digital transactions through the demonetisation drive and continually disrupting internet services in various parts of the country cannot exist in the same space.