India is the internet shutdown capital of the world19 min read . Updated: 08 Dec 2019, 05:22 PM IST
- 67% of the world’s documented shutdowns took place in India last year
- Lounge studies the anatomy of a network disruption and the impact it has on lives and livelihoods
Arshie Qureshi is a PhD scholar at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. The 26-year-old, who grew up in Srinagar, also works part-time with the Kashmir Women’s Collective (KWC), an organization in the valley that helps women who are targets of violence, domestic or otherwise, and familial disputes. The team counsels complainants, who reach out primarily via Facebook, and then helps them pursue legal recourse or provides support through other channels.
On 5 August, these efforts came to a standstill. There was a communication shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir as the Union government revoked the region’s special status and subsequently bifurcated the state into two Union territories—Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Ladakh.
“Today, those women cannot reach us, and we cannot reach them," says Qureshi. “The few messages I receive on Facebook are written on behalf of women by someone else who is not in Kashmir, but it is difficult to convey these to (our) people on the ground. These women are communicating trauma, and speaking to someone in an NGO is already difficult. Now, they either have to endure the violence or involve a whole other person in this, and wait until they get a response, if at all they do."
The gendered impact of a communication blockade, especially in areas ridden with conflict, is often missed in the din of politics. Today, as internet services remain restricted in the valley, Qureshi tries to coordinate efforts in any way she can.
In Jaipur, on the morning of 9 November, Dipesh Sharma, 31, bathed, got ready, and parked his radio taxi—a Chevrolet Beat—outside the Sanganer police station, where he would begin his duties for the day. But this would not be an ordinary workday for Sharma, who has been working as an Uber driver in Rajasthan’s capital for over a year. For some reason, he had no mobile data and could not, therefore, start the app and log in for work. He would be unable to do so for two days.
Three days later, on a busy evening, we are seated in his taxi near the B2 Bypass in Jaipur. Sharma scrolls through his phone and shows me he has completed 12 trips since 8am, earning a total of ₹1,370.
His earnings are crucial for his family—his wife and daughter, parents and younger siblings, all of whom he supports financially. He also pays ₹4,000 as rent for his two-room accommodation and ₹11,000 as monthly instalment for his vehicle.
The weekend without mobile internet, therefore, was particularly hard on him. “Saturday-Sunday aap samajh lo main berozgaar tha (On Saturday-Sunday, it was like I was jobless)," he says.
The authorities had suspended data services across several districts in Rajasthan as a preventive measure before and after the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Ayodhya land title dispute. As was also the case in select districts across Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh.
Jaipur’s commissioner of police, Anand Srivastava, wrote to divisional commissioner K.C. Verma on 8 November, requesting that “2G/3G data mobile internet (internet service—bulk SMS/MMS, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other media services through internet service providers (except voice calls)" —be suspended in view of the security situation. This was approved for 24 hours, and subsequently extended for another day.
“Sirf loss hi loss hua hai (there has been nothing but loss)," Sharma says. “Does it even work? Radical elements from any community have nothing better to do but riot, but people like me who need to earn a living and support their families are far removed from all this." Sharma suffered a loss of more than ₹3,000 over the two days.
Rajasthan, where Sharma works, and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), from where Qureshi hails, could not be more dissimilar in everything from terrain to politics. Yet they are both indicative of a larger trend: They have the highest number of network disruptions ordered by the State in India, a country that is now seen as the internet shutdown capital of the world.
The Delhi-based non-profit Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), which tracks these shutdowns nationally, says there have been 55 in J&K this year, including the one imposed on the eve of the Union government’s 5 August announcement. There were 11 in Rajasthan in the same period.
Network disruptions have also become increasingly common around the world. On 15 November, the Iranian government ordered near-complete suspension of internet services in the country as a response to protests over a hike in petrol prices. “Between mid-2015 to mid-2016, over 19 countries suspended internet access. That number increased to more than 30 in 2017. Notable international examples include the Egyptian government cutting internet services in its entire country for over four days, with China doing the same in its Xinjiang province for over 10 months," writes Google public policy fellow Nakul Nayak in his September 2018 paper The Legal Disconnect: An Analysis Of India’s Internet Shutdown Laws. “However, it is India that has the dubious distinction of witnessing the most number of shutdowns in the world," he adds.
In 2018, the #KeepItOn coalition—which works with the support of 191 organizations globally—and the non-profit Access Now reported that of the 196 internet shutdowns collated from 25 countries, India was responsible for the majority: With 134 incidents, 67% of the world’s documented shutdowns took place in India last year. Facebook’s Transparency Report, released last month, identified close to 70 disruptions of Facebook services in 15 countries in the first half of 2019—India accounted for 40 of these.
Anatomy of a shutdown
The earliest shutdown on the SFLC.in tracker dates back to 26 January 2012, when the first such instance was reported by the mainstream press—mobile internet services had been shut down in the Kashmir valley on the occasion of Republic Day. Since then, there has been an increase in the frequency of shutdowns, which have varied in duration and extent—most often the orders restrict only mobile data services. In a paper titled Living In Digital Darkness, the SFLC.in explains why: 95.13% of Indian internet users access the internet over mobile networks (phones and dongles). “In other words, of approximately 446 million Internet subscribers in India, 424 million are mobile Internet users."
In terms of duration, the longest-running shutdown was in the erstwhile state of J&K in 2016, when services remained suspended for nearly five months after the death of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, followed by the ongoing shutdown in the valley since 5 August. The third longest was a 100-day shutdown in West Bengal’s Darjeeling in June 2017 linked to the agitation for Gorkhaland.
“Our primary sources to track shutdowns are RTI (right to information) applications, news reports and citizen reporting on our website Internetshutdowns.in," says Sundar Krishnan, executive director, SFLC.in. “But several shutdowns are not reported in the news. We say this because on earlier occasions we had filed RTIs before the Rajasthan home department for shutdown orders. The RTIs revealed 26 unreported shutdowns. And even RTI is not a reliable method as many states deny giving information under Section 8 of the RTI Act."
Estimates then are conservative at best, especially given that there is no centralized count of internet shutdowns in India. As Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), an organization that works for digital liberties, puts it: “Despite multiple requests by civil society organizations as well as questions being raised in Parliament by members across party lines, including BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) members, the Union ministries of telecom, home as well as electronics and information and technology (IT) have refused to share any data because they don’t collect it."
Until two years ago, shutdowns were imposed largely under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which gave the police and district magistrate powers to prevent unlawful gatherings of people and “direct any person to abstain from a certain act". However, in August 2017, the Union government promulgated the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, under the authority granted to it by the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. These rules, in ordinary circumstances, trace the legal source of the power to issue shutdown orders to the Union home secretary or the secretary in charge of the home department in a state. This order must then be forwarded to a review committee, which is required to decide on its reasonability within five working days.
Nayak writes in his paper that this has not helped to regulate the frequency of shutdowns. “The Shutdown Rules result in arbitrary shutdown orders due to inadequate oversight and safeguards. A specific legal basis for internet shutdowns has rather than supplanting the general power under Section 144 of the CrPC, supplemented it."
The shutdown order is also sent to telecom service providers (TSPs), who suffer heavy losses with every shutdown. “According to one estimate, TSPs in Uganda lose up to USD $23 million a day due to internet shutdowns. There is no reason to believe that the opportunity costs to a TSP in India will not be similar," writes Nayak.
TSPs, however, have little option but to comply— in India, their licence can be cancelled or a penalty of up to ₹50 crore per service area imposed for every violation.
The 2017 rules also list the circumstances under which the government may order shutdowns—these include situations of public emergency, or to ensure public safety. Over the years, these have been invoked in a variety of circumstances, including conflict, militancy, caste and communal uprisings, or protests. In 2018, for instance, according to SLFC.in, the internet was shut down for two days in four districts in Punjab due to caste clashes over a poster of B.R. Ambedkar, for a day in Bihar’s Aurangabad district to prevent communal violence over Ram Navmi celebrations, and for 24 hours in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district following violence during celebrations of the Bhima Koregaon battle.
“One needs to appreciate the challenges that the law enforcement agencies face in the event of actual or potential law and order situations, in today’s times largely on account of the social media, which has deeply penetrated the populace, both in its outreach, beyond the local situation, and the speed of instant communication.
“As we are aware, there are also groups on social media on caste, communal or other similar interest lines. People freely post very provocative messages, untruths, distorted facts or pictures which, in turn agitate the people receiving them and are also a means of mobilizing crowds and the sequence of events may be such as to precipitate the breakdown of law and order resulting in loss or harm of life or property or both," says Rajeeva Swarup, additional chief secretary, home, government of Rajasthan. “When one talks of adequate preventive action, to pre-empt situations to reach this stage, it is better to go to the source from where the trouble-making originates. Hence, when things are critical, one needs to stop this process at the root so that the anti-social elements or those with particular vested interest or those with a castiest or communal outlook are not able to create a threat to public order."
These are also the reasons given for the shutdown in Kashmir. In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the State clarified that communication services had been suspended to prevent “dissemination of iniquitous and specious rumours, fake propaganda using social media sites and for preventing activities that could disturb public order and tranquility in the state, as there was every likelihood of loss of life and property if such restrictions were not imposed." The shutdown orders have not been made public.
Rajasthan has even imposed shutdowns to curb cheating in public exams. Shutdowns had become so common that in July 2018, a local newspaper report ran with the headline “Net-bandi ne Rajasthan mein paida kiye notebandi jaise haalaat (The shutdown of the internet in Rajasthan has created a situation similar to demonetization)."
Jodhpur resident Dhirendra Rajpurohit filed a petition in the Rajasthan high court last year, when repeated network disruptions made the functioning of his diagnostic centre impossible. “I could not receive payments, most of which were done on Paytm, and more importantly, since most reports are accessed over email, I could not get them to my patients in time," says the 29-year-old entrepreneur. The petition was dismissed after the state submitted an affidavit stating that it had directed the divisional commissioners that “no order suspending the internet services be issued in future during examinations".
The internet as a necessity
On the Rajasthan University campus, students congregate at a dhaba outside the women’s hostel block, using colourful overturned cannisters as stools. Over tea and milkshake, they discuss how repeated internet shutdowns have impacted their studies. Harshita Gupta, who is doing a master’s in chemistry, was unable to access her examination admit card, which was available online. “It feels like losing a limb," she says. “Does the internet shutdown even work to bring down incidents of violence or is there another way?"
Seated next to her is Aditi. The fourth-year law student, who uses only her first name, stays in the hostel and usually accesses most of her case law online. “We don’t have broadband in the hostel, and usually for tests we need to look up current case law, which is only available online. When the internet shuts down, our studies are seriously impacted," she says. Eventually, she echoes Harshita’s concern. “I don’t know if they (the shutdowns) really work to achieve the goals or not," she says
Education is now inextricably linked to the internet. The Kerala high court acknowledged this in September, when Faheema Shirin, an 18-year-old BA student, filed a petition seeking to set aside the rule which denied internet access to women students at night, as well as her expulsion for not complying with the rule and refusing to deposit her mobile phone with the hostel warden during the allotted time. “The usage of mobile phones to enable students to have access to internet will only enhance opportunities of students to acquire knowledge from all available sources based on which they can achieve excellence and enhance quality and standard of education," the verdict said.
The earliest shutdown that Qureshi, of the Kashmir Women’s Collective, can remember was in 2014, when she was a journalism student in Srinagar. But the first time she really felt the impact was when she was working as a media studies teacher at the Boys Government Degree College, Baramulla. “I was a lecturer of social media and I would be teaching my students that without the internet," she says. “It would be ridiculous of me to tell them to prepare for a paper without having done anything in class. If I gave them an assignment, how would I tell them to conduct the research for it?" adds Qureshi.
Still, education is only one casualty of repeated internet shutdowns. The humanitarian and emotive impact may be far greater. In 2016, the UN declared that access to the internet is a human right—the resolution emphasized that “the same human rights that people have offline must also be protected online". Gupta of the IFF agrees.“People sometimes think that banning of the internet only means that people cannot stream stand-up comedy or order a pizza online. But for a lot of people, the internet has become a very vital way to connect them to their professional and personal lives," he says.
For women, the smartphone has become a tool to assuage safety concerns and provide a means to alert loved ones or the authorities in times of uncertainty. Data and communication “would be snapped frequently in Baramulla between 2017-18", when Qureshi taught there, and her parents in Srinagar, where services would be active, would worry since they would not be able to contact her. But it is the ongoing shutdown in Kashmir that has had the most profound impact on her personal life—in the initial days of the blackout, news about her family and friends was hard to come by. “I was in Kashmir between 5-20 August but it was only after I came back to Delhi that I learnt about a relative’s death. It was from a common relative who met me here and told me he had a heart attack and could not reach the hospital on time," she says. “It felt as though my grief multiplied. It made me realize how the State can control everything we do, even our right to mourn the dead."
The internet today is not only a platform where dissent can be registered meaningfully, creating a democratized space cutting across distinctions of caste, class and gender in an unprecedented way, but also directly affects the lives and livelihoods of citizens. In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India, it is a lot more. Many of the schemes rolled out by the government are linked to the internet.
For instance, the Ayushman Bharat scheme, which provides subsidized medical care in government hospitals, depends on the internet—several subsidy payments are made electronically. Even availing of rations now relies on biometric authentication. “It impacts people who are the most vulnerable and the most poor in the most direct and injurious ways," says Gupta.
Jammu-based Anuradha Bhasin, editor, Kashmir Times, describes the present shutdown as the worst she has seen. “Right now also there is a complete internet blackout in Rajouri, Poonch, Kishtwar, Doda—Muslim-majority regions of Jammu. So, wherever reporters are managing to file stories, they are working out of government offices where your work is already under surveillance," she says. “Even in the valley, journalists get about 15 minutes of internet in the facilitation centre. And that’s in Srinagar. There is silence, more or less, from other districts of the valley, and our Srinagar-based journalists also have no way of contacting their sources since prepaid services have not been activated for close to four months."
Bhasin has filed a petition in the Supreme Court, urging that the restrictions on journalists be lifted—the judgment is reserved. “Internet now is not a privilege, it is a basic need. And at the end of the day, the biggest takeaway is that people’s voices have been silenced," says Bhasin.
The financial setback as a result of internet shutdowns can be crippling for businesses—both in the formal and informal sectors. An April 2018 report of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (Icrier) estimates the economic cost of internet shutdowns in India—between 2012-17, 16,315 hours of internet shutdown cost the economy approximately $3.04 billion (around ₹21,584 crore now). The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) stated last month that the valley had already suffered a loss of over ₹100 billion since 5 August.
Bhasin, like others in the region, has also taken a hit in business. She says that while Kashmir Times, one of J&K’s more widely circulated papers, was printing 70,000-80,000 copies in the valley, this went down to zero after 5 August. “When we started printing in October, we began with only 500 copies, which eventually rose to 1,000 by the end of the month and picked up later," she says. “Your ability to update the site is impacted. Your readership goes down because people who read the paper on the internet are not able to access it," adds Bhasin.
Rajasthan, like other states, counts its own losses. On 13 August, two days before Independence Day, there were news reports of communal tension in Jaipur’s Ramganj area. Internet services were suspended in the jurisdiction of 10 police stations. In July, violence over the rape of a minor girl in Shastri Nagar led to heavy police deployment and data services were restricted in neighbouring areas, including Ramganj.
This is where 20-year-old Faisal Hussain grew up. Dressed in a striped shirt and faded jeans, he oversees the display of faux silver and gold bangles at Crafts Corner, a family-run store opposite Hawa Mahal. “There have already been three shutdowns here this year," he says. “We suffer a daily loss of at least ₹20,000 per day, and multiply that by the number of days it goes on. A five-day shutdown means ₹1 lakh. Paytm doesn’t work and ATMs face issues as well."
Additional chief secretary Swarup acknowledges that the “balance of convenience" is always a prime consideration when an internet shutdown is imposed, i.e. between the inconvenience that is caused to the general public and the loss or harm to life or property that could be caused in the event of a likely confrontation. “If such shutdowns are not absolutely essential, they should be avoided. Similarly, if things are returning to normalcy, one must not prolong it just for the sake of abundant caution but restore the services, because one always has the option to impose the shutdown if things deteriorate in future. Hence, shutdown should not be continued for a period more than necessary," he says.
“That’s exactly what I did during the Ayodhya shutdown. Before the judgement came, we advised to suspend internet services because there was complete uncertainty about the reaction that would ensue. There was overall peace on the day of the judgement. The next day Barawafat processions also passed off peacefully and hence, in the evening, when I realized there was normalcy, I advised all divisional commissioners to order restoration of services."
A few kilometres away from Hussain’s shop near Hawa Mahal, in the basement of Saraogi Mansion, is Golani Enterprises, hidden between glossy garment shops. Sonu Golani is holding fort, surrounded by the latest mobile phones, behind a glass display lit by blinding LEDs. “Aaj kal toh aaye din yahan internet band ho jata hai (Nowadays the internet is shut down very frequently)," he says. “Almost all my work happens on the internet now—if I need to place an order, I need to do so on the internet with my vendors; if I need to market it, I need social media to post new models and specs on Facebook and WhatsApp; if I need to recharge a phone, it is done on the app. None of this happens while the internet is shut down, I just sit and wait."
Golani is willing to endure shutdowns if it ensures peace. But he too has the same question as the others: “Does it really work?"
Jan Rydzak, research scholar and associate director for program at Stanford University’s Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPi), attempts an answer. In his thesis, A Total Eclipse Of The Net: The Dynamics Of Network Shutdowns And Collective Action Responses, Rydzak argues that internet shutdowns are not effective: “The analysis suggests that such blackouts do not pacify protest in the short run, but rather lead to an escalation of collective action. This casts doubt on governments’ public narrative in support of shutdowns, which revolve around their ability to stifle mobilization, curb rumors, and ensure public safety."
The contradictions in availability of digital liberties in India, however, continue to be glaring. As Kerala declares the internet to be a basic right, approving a fibre optic network project to provide connectivity to every household in the state, Kashmir enters its fifth month of being in a digital void.