States around the world are divided along the lines of how they should view the internet. On one end of the spectrum, there are calls to treat the internet somewhat as a fundamental right. For instance, the UN subscribes to this view and is publicly advocating for internet freedom and protection of rights online. On the other end of the spectrum, there is India, where after over a hundred shutdowns in 2019 alone, you could arguably define access to the internet as a luxury.
In my personal opinion, shutting down the internet for a certain area is an objectively horrible thing to do. It’s no wonder that states tend to not take this lightly. Even in Hong Kong, after months of protests, the government felt it okay to issue a ban on face masks in public gatherings. However, when it came to the internet, the government looked at censoring the internet, not shutting it down. The difference is that under censorship, access to certain websites or apps is restricted, but there is a reasonable scope for the protesters to contact their families and loved ones. The chronology will tell you that even internet censorship as a measure was considered after weeks of protests.
In the case of India, that is among one of the first things the government does. So when India revoked Kashmir’s autonomy on August 5, 2019, the government shut down the internet the same day. It has been almost 150 days at the time of writing with no news of access to the internet being restored in Kashmir valley. Naturally, people are now getting on trains to go to nearby towns with internet access to renew official documents, fill out admission forms, check emails, or register for exams.
There are multiple good arguments as to why the internet should not be shut down for regions. They cost countries a lot of money once implemented.
According to a report by Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, During 2012-17,
16,315 hours of Internet shutdown cost India’s economy around $3 billion, the 12,600 hours of mobile Internet shutdown about $2.37 billion, and the 3,700 hours of mobile and fixed-line Internet shutdowns nearly $678.4 million.
Telecom operators have also suffered because of the Article
370 and the CAA biproducts of the internet shutdown with The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) estimating the cost of internet shutdowns being close to `24.5 million for every hour of internet shutdown. Then consider the impact shutting down the internet has on the fundamental right to the freedom of speech and expression and the impact it has on the democratic fabric of our country.
In the case of India, internet shutdowns are also a bad idea because they reinforce the duration of shutdowns and also make themselves more frequent.
Let me explain the duration argument first. Shutdowns tend to happen in regions that are already unstable or may be about to become so. For better or for worse, the violence and brutality resulting from the instability are captured and shared through smartphones. While those videos/photos may not be as effective as independent news stories, when put on social media they combine to build a narrative. And soon enough the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, creating awareness among people who had little or none before. The problem is that the longer the instability and the internet shutdown last, the more ‘content’ there is to build a narrative. In the case of Assam and even more so in Kashmir, this is exactly what has happened. At this point, if the government rescinds the shutdown in either of those places, it faces the inevitable floodgates opening on social media. And the longer this lasts, the more content is going to be floated around.
Secondly, internet shutdowns make internet shutdowns more frequent. After revoking access to the internet a certain number of times, the current administration seems to have developed a model/doctrine for curbing dissent.
Step 1 in that model is shutting down the internet. This has led to shutdowns being normalized as a measure within the government. So it’s no longer a calculated response but a knee jerk reaction that seems to kick the freedom of expression in the teeth every time it is activated.
The broader point here is that taking away the internet is an act of running away from backlash and discourse.
To carry it out as an immediate response to protests is in principle, turning away from the democratic value of free speech. It’s hard to believe that it may be time for the world’s largest democracy to learn from Hong Kong (a state which uses tear gas against its people and then tries to ban face masks) when it comes to dealing with protesters.
(The writer is a technology policy analyst at the Takshashila Institution.)
This article was first published in Deccan Chronicle.