Look at the numbers: Why Digital India can’t afford internet shutdowns with slowing economy

Take a look at these numbers – 3, 5, 6, 14, 31, 79, 134, 91. These are the numbers of documented instances of internet shutdowns in India between 2012 and 2019. The 2019 number will certainly rise during the final weeks of the year as anger against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the Bharatiya Janata Party rises.

And yet, as internet shutdowns are reported in Meerut, Aligarh, Malda, Howrah, Assam, Nagaland, one wonders if Narendra Modi government really thinks it can help assuage anger and old resentments.

World over, protesters have always found a way out of any clampdown. In Hong Kong, protesters are using Bridgefy, a service that relies on Bluetooth, to organise.

And yet, all governments, irrespective of whether it is the Congress or the BJP or any other party, keep using internet shutdowns as a kill switch. But tech stops for no one. It’s time India thinks beyond shutdowns.

A new era

In almost all cases, mobile internet services were shutdown. For four of the last five years, more than half of these shutdowns have been ‘proactive’ in nature. They have been imposed based either on Section 144 of the CrPC or The Temporary Suspension of Telecom Rules issued by the Ministry of Communications under the NDA government in 2017. While an appeal against the use of the former was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2016, the latter suffers from a lack of transparency and was passed without any consultation with citizens, who are directly affected. Through RTI requests it has also been revealed that many instances of internet shutdowns go undocumented and due process is not always followed.

The willingness and urgency on display to snap communication lines is worrying, especially in ‘Digital India’. Considering that 97 per cent of the estimated 570 million internet users use at least a mobile device access to access the internet, and the growing reliance on connectivity for communication and commerce, this is a severely disproportionate measure. Various studies have pegged the cost of these disruptions from 0.4-2 per cent of a country’s daily GDP to $3 billion for India over a 5-year period ending in 2017.

Since 2017, India has witnessed nearly twice as many shutdowns. Even so, until mid-2019, internet shutdowns predominantly affected parts of Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir, both accounting for nearly 250 instances. More importantly, they were rarely imposed in urban centres. In August 2019, a new era began unfolding. First the ongoing internet shutdown in the region of Jammu and Kashmir is the widest sustained disruption ever documented. Second, on the day of the Supreme Court Ayodhya verdict, proactive internet shutdowns were in operation in Aligarh, Agra and Jaipur, signalling a shift in the willingness to deploy them in urban centres. And finally, with ongoing protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, reports have been coming in about internet disruptions in Assam, Tripura, multiple districts in West Bengal, Aligarh and Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, cementing the use of internet shutdowns as the tool of choice.

Diminishing returns

The framework of Radically Networked Societies (RNS) can be used to understand the interplay between protesters and the state. An RNS is defined as a web of connected individuals possessing an identity (real or imagined) and having a common immediate cause. The internet as a medium provided them the ability to scale faster and wider than ever before.

With measures like internet shutdowns and curfews, the state aims to increase the time it takes for them to mobilise by restricting information flows. However, such methods are bound to have diminishing returns over time.

Snapping communication lines will do little to quell genuine resentment and may conversely encourage people to take to the streets and violate curfews, thereby increasing chances of escalation. Mesh networking apps that operate without internet connectivity will eventually make their way into the toolkit of Indian protesters, like they did in the Hong Kong protests, rendering the argument of shutdowns as an ‘online curfew’ moot.

Better than shutdowns

The Indian State must evolve beyond the use of internet shutdowns. Instead, it should look to address the causes and reduce the time it takes to counter mobilise. There have been some instances of state authorities trying different approaches.

In September 2016, when there were protests in Bengaluru over the Cauvery water sharing judgment, instead of shutting down the internet the Bengaluru Police took to Twitter to dispel misinformation and rumours proactively. In the days leading up to the Ayodhya verdict, several police departments were proactively monitoring social media for objectionable messages. While this did not function smoothly on the day of the verdict since the police went on an excessive case registering spree, the Bengaluru example shows that it can work. Future capacity building and training cyber personnel to specifically counter flows of misinformation online must be a consideration going forward.

The reaction to viral hoax messages circulating before the Ayodhya verdict warning of surveillance also produced some interesting insight. While more surveillance is never the answer, alternate ways of promoting responsible behaviour should be explored. This could range from encouraging fact-checking of information to political leaders leading by example and not encouraging abusive trolls, misinformation flows themselves. Conflict and polarisation as engagement must be actively discouraged.

Another important step is to counter dangerous speech in society. Research has shown that misinformation/disinformation does not only circulate during specific events. Conditions that exacerbate such flows already exist in society. While the state alone cannot do this, it must nudge the people towards countering it. Such measures must be articulated in the upcoming National Cybersecurity Policy.

Ultimately, that the world’s largest democracy is by far the world leader of such disproportionate tactics should be reason enough for the Indian state to rethink the use of internet shutdowns. But if that doesn’t suffice, the realisation that they come with an expiry date should spur it into fixing the underlying problems unless it wants to live with the diminishing returns that incentivise escalation.

The author is a Research Analyst at The Takshashila Institution’s Technology and Policy Programme. Views are personal.

This article originally appeared in ThePrint.in