The jarring effects of internet shutdowns in India

Frequent instances of internet shutdowns have become a recurring trend in India. The government justifies these shutdowns by citing the need to maintain public order, safeguard national security, and counteract the spread of misinformation. Nevertheless, such actions frequently lead to significant repercussions, stifling the unrestricted exchange of information and the freedom of expression.

Recently in Nuh, Haryana, and Manipur, the local administrations took the decision to suspend internet services, citing religious and ethnic tensions and security concerns, respectively. This incident adds to the concerning trend of internet shutdowns, which have been employed frequently in various regions across India.

Since 2018, India has consistently led in the frequency of internet shutdowns compared to other nations worldwide. According to a particular estimation, India accounted for the highest number of shutdowns in 2022, marking its fifth consecutive year of this trend, encompassing 84 out of 187 shutdowns globally. While this report includes shutdowns until December 2022, by March 2023, a three-day mobile internet blackout was enforced in the entire Punjab state to locate a separatist leader. In May, both mobile and fixed-line internet services were entirely suspended in Manipur state for several weeks due to ethnic conflicts.

Notably, in 2019, Jammu & Kashmir experienced a staggering 55 internet blockades, while Rajasthan faced 11 similar instances during the same period. These actions contribute to India’s prominence in the global landscape of internet shutdowns, accounting for a significant portion of the 196 documented shutdowns in 25 different countries in 2018. Furthermore, the region of Jammu & Kashmir holds the record for the longest-lasting shutdown, spanning approximately 5 months in 2016. This narrative underscores the critical need to balance security concerns with the essential right to access information and communication. 

Internet access plays a pivotal role not only in safeguarding the rights to freedom of expression and association but also in upholding various economic and social entitlements. As governments progressively digitize and automate key social security initiatives, the significance of internet connectivity grows substantially, playing a vital role in realizing fundamental rights such as education, health, employment, and access to nourishment.

The Internet has become crucial for accessing essential government welfare programs, such as the right-to-work guarantee and the public distribution system under the Food Security Act. E-governance in rural areas also relies heavily on internet connectivity. During internet shutdowns, the population, especially marginalized communities, faces heightened vulnerability. All government schemes now require internet access, even basic needs like food rations demand biometric authentication.

For instance, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) plays a crucial role in ensuring income security for more than 100 million households in rural regions, offering them a guaranteed 100-day employment opportunity. Participants in this initiative earn a daily wage ranging from 204 rupees (US$2.47) to 333 rupees (US$4.02), contingent upon the state of their residence. Given the limited job prospects in rural areas, access to this income security program has become indispensable.

Notably, NREGA has emerged as a powerful agent of women’s empowerment, as evidenced by the fact that 58% of program beneficiaries during the 2022-23 period were women. The majority of these women hailed from socially and economically marginalized backgrounds. Nevertheless, the government’s shift towards digitalizing NREGA, encompassing aspects like attendance tracking and wage disbursements, has heightened the significance of internet accessibility. Unfortunately, the remote areas encompassed by the program already experience subpar network coverage, leading to formidable obstacles that impede progress in poverty alleviation. Regrettably, instances of internet shutdowns further exacerbate the predicament by cutting off the crucial lifeline of internet access.

Within India, most instances of shutdowns revolve around severing internet access on mobile devices within specific regions. However, this equates to a complete internet blackout for the majority of the populace in these areas. This stems from the fact that a staggering 96% of internet users in India rely on their mobile phones for online access, while a mere 4% possess fixed-line internet connections. The essence of mobile connectivity becomes even more pronounced in rural locales, given that 94 per cent of fixed-line links are concentrated in urban zones. Consequently, these shutdowns disproportionately affect individuals unable to afford fixed-line internet services, amplifying their impact on those inhabiting remote and rural sectors with limited or nonexistent fixed-line internet availability.

The current emphasis on digital public infrastructure raises questions about its true impact, particularly in the face of sustained internet cutoffs that can isolate entire states, rendering online services, government benefits, and digital payments inaccessible for millions. The escalating tally of 51 shutdowns in 2023 alone cements India’s position as the ongoing global frontrunner in internet suspensions, poised for a sixth consecutive year. Should this trend persist, the beneficiaries of Digital India would become a select elite, hailing from privileged sectors capable of affording broadband connections and residing in connectivity-favoured regions. Such a trajectory challenges India’s potential to drive global transformation, even within the context of its G20 presidency, which spotlights the digital economy, or to assume leadership in open societies. The continued denial of an open and secure internet to its populace could undermine India’s aspirations and hinder its ability to foster change on a broader scale. Amidst these considerations, one might wonder how India can reconcile this paradox and uphold its commitment to digital progress. Is there a path to leverage technology to bridge these disparities, ensuring that the benefits of the digital era are truly inclusive and accessible to all citizens?

Every time, various justifications are given, with some Indian states resorting to this action; they often swiftly cut off Internet services upon learning of peaceful protests. This is purportedly done to ” maintain law and order.” Existing research indicates that internet shutdowns, instead of aiding law and order, might potentially contribute to escalated violence during protests. Without online platforms for peaceful coordination, individuals might resort to unplanned and spontaneous actions, potentially leading to unrest. However, no proof of the actual effectiveness of these shutdowns is ever presented. Yet, it seems plausible. We tend to believe, “Social media spreads misinformation so rapidly to large audiences, so it must be accurate.” We all tend to reason, “If the police are saying it, it’s likely correct. After all, it’s for our safety.” If it doesn’t affect our own lives and is occurring in a distant part of the nation, we promptly dismiss it as a concern only for the privileged. 

Critiquing the government, it’s concerning how frequently these shutdowns occur, raising questions about their necessity. The lack of transparency in such decisions erodes public trust. Instead of informed choices, these actions feel like attempts to control narratives. While claiming to protect us, it seems these measures could potentially infringe upon our rights and freedoms. The evolving perception of the Internet, from the essential public domain to selectively accessible privilege, underscores the need for fair and accountable governance in our digital age.

The condition in India has worsened due to insufficient safeguards within the established legal procedures. The absence of both judicial and parliamentary checks on these actions allows the executive to enforce extended network shutdowns without being accountable. In 2021, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology released a report evaluating the impact of shutdowns. The report highlighted that the Suspension Rules were extensively misused, resulting in significant economic losses, public hardships, and damage to the country’s reputation. Despite the government’s emphasis on digitalization and open internet access, frequent suspensions on weak grounds were deemed unnecessary and urged to be avoided.

Furthermore, authorities invoked section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, granting district magistrates the power to take preventive actions against imminent threats to public order. This provision enabled internet suspensions for maintaining law and order, often executed secretly without public disclosure or accountability. The absence of oversight and the ability to pass orders ex parte, even during self-declared emergencies, raised concerns regarding the lack of review mechanisms.

Supreme Court decisions on internet restrictions are crucial, though governments often fail to implement these rulings. Policy gaps exist, enabling curbs on freedom of expression and liberty, as seen during the extended internet shutdown in Kashmir after Article 370’s revocation. The Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rule (Telegraph Act, 2017) is employed, with broad terms like “public emergency” and “public safety” covering internet controls.

Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India (2020) marked a turning point, declaring indefinite internet shutdowns illegal and requiring justification based on necessity and proportionality. Article 21A of the Indian Constitution confirms internet access as part of the right to education, upheld by courts like the Kerala High Court in Faheem Shirin R.K. v. State of Kerala (2017). The verdict promotes balanced governance objectives and citizens’ education rights, stressing transparency and publication of shutdown orders. However, this legal review falls short of a lasting solution to government control over the Internet.

Internet shutdowns pose a significant challenge as they curtail information access and undermine a universal medium of expression. This grants ruling political factions the ability to oversee the “marketplace of ideas” affording them a shield against accountability. By doing so, they manipulate narratives, shielding themselves from critics and dissent, thus securing their hold on power. In the absence of concrete legislative measures against arbitrary internet shutdowns, it becomes essential for the judiciary to emerge as the guardian of citizens’ constitutional rights, ensuring their protection and upholding their fundamental freedoms.

It is undeniable that in the contemporary era, the internet stands as the most widely utilized and easily accessible channel for information exchange. The existing legal framework overseeing internet shutdowns necessitates a comprehensive revision, prioritizing heightened transparency and accountability. A robust system for evaluating the validity of shutdowns should be introduced. Furthermore, a set of distinct directives and procedures for executing internet shutdowns ought to be established, guaranteeing their exclusive application in extraordinary situations.

Aamir Raza is a consultant fact checker at UN Women India.