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Patralekha Chatterjee | Shutting down Internet: Govts need to do rethink

DECCAN CHRONICLE | Patralekha Chatterjee

Published on: May 12, 2023 | Updated on: May 12, 2023

Rapid Action Force personnel conduct a flag march amid ongoing violence in Manipur, in Imphal, Sunday night, May 7, 2023. (PTI Photo)

Governments across the world are increasingly resorting to Internet shutdowns to stabilise potentially volatile situations, quell protests, and even to deal with problems like cheating in examinations. But from a governance perspective, how sustainable are such measures in a world where reliance on digital technologies is growing?

Today, many experts are sounding the alarm not only because these disruptions impact the human rights of millions of people for hundreds of hours, but also because they impose a heavy cost on the economy and the livelihoods of ordinary people.

Amid the swirl of news, here are some widely-cited numbers to chew on.

According to digital rights group Top10VPN, which researches the economic impacts of Internet shutdowns, in 2023 alone, 46 Internet shutdowns in 10 countries cost $761 million till date. Globally, the total duration of such disruptions has been more than 12,400 hours. This year, so far, Ethiopia is the most affected nation. The economic costs of Internet shutdowns to date in that country have been $372.2 million. Ethiopia is followed by India and Myanmar. I checked out the figure for India. Up till now, it is $201.6 million.

Now, for a country that has a dominantly young population and is legitimately proud of having 800 million Internet users, this is a worrying trend and one we ignore at great risk.

Which brings me to one of my favourite states in the country: Manipur. I have the fondest memories of Manipur. Fifteen years ago, I spent some time in this beautiful state in the Northeast, researching a book on children impacted by HIV-AIDS. I remember taking time off from work to visit Ima Keithel, the "mother’s market" in Imphal, the state capital. It is the largest "women-only" market in the world, where men come only as buyers or as porters.

Manipur has been in the news in recent days for violent ethnic clashes. There have been deaths, devastation, arson, and gut-wrenching anxiety, including among people I know who have families in the affected areas.

Sitting thousands of kilometres away, one reads about Manipur limping back to normalcy. Curfew is being relaxed in the worst-hit districts; the Army and paramilitary forces are keeping a vigil. In these troubled times, that is reassuring. But at the time of writing, mobile Internet service continues to remain suspended in large parts of the state. The official reason is prevention of disturbance of peace and public order.

It is too early to say what the direct and indirect economic costs have been. Larger questions remain.

Manipur is in the news, but it is by no means the only state where Internet shutdowns have happened this year or in past years. In the Northeast itself, the Arunachal Pradesh government recently suspended the Internet in the state’s Papumpare district to "maintain law and order" through an official notification on May 9. In February this year, Itanagar, capital of Arunachal Pradesh, also saw a temporary suspension of Internet services after a clash broke out between security personnel and protesters over a "paper leak" case.

In April, Sambalpur district in Odisha experienced a temporary suspension of the Internet after communal tension during a Hanuman Jayanti rally.

In March, Punjab suffered one of the country’s most severe Internet blackouts. Barring voice calls, all mobile Internet services, SMS services, as well as all dongle services provided on mobile networks were suspended in the state as the police went on a search for "Waris Punjab De" chief and Khalistan sympathiser Amritpal Singh. The local police said the Internet shutdown was necessary to maintain law and order and stop the spread of "fake news".

Arguably, nothing compares to the prolonged Internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir in recent years, but interestingly, we are seeing the increasing use of Internet shutdowns for the most pedestrian reasons and by political parties of all hues.

The desert state of Rajasthan, known for its forts and palaces, is now a hotbed of Internet shutdowns. And the most-cited reason is even more interesting. This February, the Internet was suspended in eight cities in Rajasthan, ostensibly to prevent the question paper leak of a government teacher recruitment exam. Uttar Pradesh is another state which has seen Internet suspensions in recent years. In 2020, the Internet and text messaging services were suspended in 14 districts of Uttar Pradesh, including in state capital Lucknow, in the wake of violence and protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in these areas.

Things have come to such a pass that a plea was moved in the Supreme Court earlier this year seeking guidelines on the implementation of Internet shutdowns. This happened following the suspension of Internet services in Jaipur and other places. The official reason was the Rajasthan Direct School Teacher Recruitment Examination.

The petitioner, Chhaya Rani, argued that such blocking of access to the Internet was avoidable and did not reflect well on the competence of the authorities to conduct such an exam. In 2020, the issue came up before the Supreme Court in the famous Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India case.  The apex court held that "the suspension/restriction of Internet services should not be done in a disproportionate way…  that the degree and scope of restrictions had to be proportionate to the situation that the government was trying to address," reported the Supreme Court Observer. "In order to ensure that the government does not impose such restrictions indefinitely, the court directed a review committee to undertake periodic reviews of such suspension orders. This order had come in the context of Internet restrictions imposed in Jammu & Kashmir in the aftermath of the abrogation of its special status. Further to the order, although some restrictions were eased, 4G mobile Internet services remained suspended in J&K. A batch of petitions was then filed in the Supreme Court seeking restoration of 4G mobile Internet, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic," it added.

Clearly, shutting down access to the Internet is fast becoming the go-to measure for those in power, across the world, cutting across the ideological spectrum. This reflects on the state of governance.

As ordinary citizens, one must ask questions. Is there credible evidence that shutting down access to the Internet solves the problems it is meant to deal with? Is there a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of this measure in India? Those in power must be reminded that such disruptions extract a heavy price from ordinary people — ordinary consumers, local traders, and small and medium-sized businesses that rely on online access for payments, consumer access, delivery, and much more.