In the realm of digital advancements, India stands as a pioneer with the world’s largest biometric ID database, an innovative digital payment system, and a flagship space and satellite program. However, this technological prowess comes with a double-edged sword as authorities resort to internet shutdowns in times of political unrest or sectarian violence, disrupting the lives of millions dependent on the web for communication, information, and business.
Internet shutdowns have become a prevalent tool in the toolkit of Indian authorities, according to Mishi Choudhary, an online civil liberties activist. These blackouts, lasting from hours to months, are enforced swiftly, cutting off entire regions. In Manipur state, over three million people experienced a mobile internet blackout for months, hampering crucial communication channels. Phijam Ibungobi, who discovered the tragic fate of his son two months after clashes erupted, emphasized the vital role the internet played in delivering the news, even if it was heartbreaking.
India, known as the world’s largest democracy, paradoxically leads in internet shutdowns, recording 84 out of 187 global shutdowns in the previous year, as reported by online freedom monitors Access Now. These shutdowns are justified by authorities citing reasons such as protests and the prevention of exam cheating. The Internet Freedom Foundation’s analysis from 2020 to 2022 revealed that the government employs this tactic to shape its narrative by stifling counter voices.
However, the impact on the population, especially the poorest who rely on online social support systems, is significant. Human Rights Watch contends that internet shutdowns disproportionately affect the underprivileged, with nearly 121 million people impacted in the preceding year. Despite the government’s push for a ‘Digital India,’ these shutdowns persist as a default policing measure, hindering economic activities and impeding trade.
In Indian-administered Kashmir, a 500-day internet blackout in 2019 and 2020 incurred an economic loss exceeding $2.4 billion, according to local traders. Access Now emphasizes that internet access is integral to economic security, affecting everyone from small-scale vegetable sellers to larger businesses reliant on online payment apps.
The bans also pose challenges for journalists. Vinod Jire, a journalist in Maharashtra’s Beed district, faced difficulties reporting on protesters demanding job quotas when authorities suspended the internet for three days. The government’s argument that internet cuts curb disinformation by preventing rumors on social media holds little water for advocates like Tanmay Singh. Singh, from the Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, points out that disinformation spreads offline, and the primary defense lies in fact verification, which predominantly happens online.
While authorities dismiss concerns about the impact of internet shutdowns, stating it curbs disinformation, critics argue that it fails to address the root causes of conflicts. In Manipur, tribal leader Ginza Vualzong emphasizes that the internet ban does not resolve underlying issues, such as the division of communities into rival ethnic groups.