Why is the Indian state relying more and more on Internet shutdowns?



As the Indian state adopts Internet suspension again, this time in Haryana, to control law and order, ISHITA CHIGILLI PALLI explains how these frequent closures are not only contrary to fundamental rights, but also ineffective and economically damaging.

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Shutting down mobile internet services for long periods of time has become an inescapable decision of unions and state governments in India.

Earlier this month, the state’s Home Office suspended mobile internet services for more than 30 hours in 5 districts of Haryana, ahead of a mahapanchayat (congregation) of farmers project in Karnal, stating that there was a perceived threat to law and order.

Mobile internet services have been suspended for 48 hours in parts of Meghalaya last month after the assassination of a former activist of the National Liberation Council Hynniewtrep (HNLC) banned by the police force.

Since 2012, there have been 540 Internet shutdowns in India, going from 3 shutdowns in 2012 to 129 shutdowns in 2020, according to the Software Freedom Act

Center, an organization working for the defense of digital freedom, the average duration of internet and communication blockages also extending over the years.

Jammu and Kashmir paid the price, with the government blocking internet access 315 times in total. From August 5, 2019, with the repeal of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and the abolition of its statehood, an Internet and communications blackout has been imposed on the territory of the Union for almost six months.

The sluggishness of 2G services was reinstated on January 24, 2020, only after the Supreme Court ruling in Anuradha Bhasin v Indian Union (2020) in which the Supreme Court concluded that the closure was a violation of the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (1), point (a) as well as freedom of trade and commerce using the Internet under Article 19 (1), point (g) of the Constitution.

4G internet services were finally restored in Jammu and Kashmir on February 5 this year, after a period of 552 days.

Read more: Internet shutdown after Geelani’s death Violated the SC order?

Reasons for closures

Official reasons provided by government authorities for these closures include “precautionary measures”, maintaining public order, preventing the spread of disinformation, and preventing exam cheating. Upon closer examination, however, Internet shutdowns are often imposed to quell dissent, quell protests, and can be triggered by community tensions.

a analysis conducted by Deutsche Welle, a German-based media organization, found that every second shutdown took place against a backdrop of state violence. “Most closures occur during or after incidents of police brutality and violent protests, and they are used as a tool to quell dissent,” the report said.

Another analysis on the question conducted by Kris Ruijgrok, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam, found that the probability of a district experiencing an Internet shutdown is 3.5 times higher in states led by the Bharatiya Janta party.

Internet shutdowns can take the form of a complete blackout in an area or a partial shutdown. Governments carry out partial shutdowns by blocking certain websites, applications or content, closing access to certain media, such as mobile Internet, or limiting, which consists of reducing Internet speeds in an area.

That these indiscriminate closures appear to have become a favored tool of union and state governments is a source of concern as the state does not appear to assess the consequences or possible effects of these closures.

Read also : Indian students suffered the most during COVID-19 as digital India failed to provide internet connectivity

Judgments violate fundamental rights

Indiscriminate Internet shutdowns are in violation of Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, as the Internet is one of the primary means of speech and expression. In Anuradha Bhasin, the Supreme Court underlined that the freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a) extends to the Internet. However, Article 19 (2) allows the government to impose “reasonable restrictions” on this fundamental right under certain conditions.

The restrictions must be legal, legitimate and reasonable. An Internet shutdown can only be lawful if it is notified to citizens, a step that has been repeatedly skipped by the state, despite the Anuradha Bhasin judgment which restores this measure.

The reasonableness or not of a restriction can be determined by means of a proportionality test, which is used by courts in cases involving limitations on fundamental rights. Simply put, any measure leading to restriction of individual liberty must be proportionate to the ends pursued.

In India, the Supreme Court devised a four-pronged approach to the proportionality test.

In the case of Modern Dental College vs. Madhya Pradesh State (2016), the Supreme Court ruled that limitation of a constitutional right is permissible if:

“(I) it is designated for legitimate purposes; (ii) the measures taken to effect such a limitation are rationally linked to the achievement of this objective; (iii) the measures taken are necessary in that there are no alternative measures which can likewise achieve the same objective with a lesser degree of limitation; and finally (iv) there must be an appropriate relationship (“proportionality stricto sensu” or “balancing”) between the importance of achieving the appropriate end and the social importance of preventing the limitation of constitutional right. “

An Internet shutdown can only be imposed in an emergency when it is necessary, unavoidable and no other measure exists. They should only be used as a last resort, after deliberation by the competent authorities and in accordance with the law, instead of being used without discrimination and without prior notification to the citizens concerned.

Read also : India ranks poorly in Reuters Digital News Report 2021

Studies show closures are ineffective and hurt the economy

In addition, the effectiveness of Internet shutdowns has been questioned because they do not always achieve their goal. Internet blackouts are often imposed in order to defuse protests. However, a to study conducted by Jan Rydzak at Stanford University revealed that “information blackouts are forcing collective action participants in India to substitute non-violent tactics for violent tactics that rely less on communication and coordination. effective ”.

The Indian government has not carried out any such study to measure the effectiveness of the closures. Given the considerable social and economic ramifications of an Internet shutdown, it is only fair that the government conduct shutdown impact assessments.

Economically, India’s internet shutdowns resulted in losses of more than $ 2.8 billion in 2020, according to a study by a UK digital privacy organization. Top10VPN, who said actual losses could be higher since the study only focused on larger region-wide closures.

Internet access is also crucial during the pandemic, and a shutdown could hamper access to essential health services and hamper contact tracing, a key component in bringing COVID-19 under control.

“During a health crisis, access to accurate and timely information is crucial. People use the internet for updates on health measures, movement restrictions and relevant news to protect themselves and others, ”according to a report from an international NGO. Human Rights Watch.

(Ishita Chigilli Palli is a journalist and Young India Fellow. She is passionate about human rights and environmental causes. The opinions expressed are personal.)


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