India

India’s internet shutdowns: Looking beyond J&K, Rajasthan the new hotbed

Internet suspension following protests is not new to India. Internet services have been suspended in Rajasthan for the past six days in view of communal tension following the murder of a tailor in Udaipur. However, Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed the highest number of internet clampdowns ever.

The viral video of the brutal, cold-blooded beheading of tailor Kanhaiya Lal for supporting Nupur Sharma’s statement’s on Prophet Mohammed on social media led to the internet suspension in Rajasthan. The incident led to a boiling point in Udaipur as many gathered to protest in public places burning public property.

Section 144 was imposed in all districts of Rajasthan for a month and internet was shutdown immediately and it expanded to the entire state in less than 24 hours. However, now the shutdown remains only in Jaipur and Udaipur.

But this is not the first such instance of internet shutdown. A review of various reports on internet shutdowns in India shows that Rajasthan is now a hotbed of internet shutdowns after Jammu and Kashmir.

Rajasthan has seen complete or partial internet clampdown, a total of 88 times recently. Overall, the capital city of Jaipur saw the internet being shut 18 times, followed by Sikar district which saw online services shut 17 times and Udaipur 14 times. This is the second-highest reported clampdown on the internet in a state after Jammu and Kashmir that has suffered 411 shutdowns overall since 2012, according to Internetshutdowns.in, a website operated by the Software Freedom Law Centre, India — the first Indian legal services organisation that works exclusively on technology, law, and policy.

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Advocate Krishnesh Bhapat, Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), an advocacy group that fights legal cases on arbitrary internet bans, said, “In the past 3 years, Rajasthan has seen the most internet shutdowns than any other state in India, even more than Jammu and Kashmir. The problem with the state police is that a lot of times the state administration does not upload the orders to impose a shutdown of the internet in the public domain. They cite Section 81A of the RTI act saying that it may affect the sovereignty of the country.”

We looked at several internet suspension orders issued in Rajasthan during April-June 2022 and found many reported instances of such clampdowns:

June 10, 2022 – Internet services suspended in Amer district of Rajasthan due to threat to MLAs

13 May 2022 – Another internet shutdown in Rajasthan over tension after the attack on a VHP leader

11 May 2022 – Internet services shut in Bhilwara amid tensions over the alleged killing of a 22-year-old boy, after which several Hindu organisations gathered and protested

May 5, 2022 – Internet services were suspended in Bhilwara after miscreants attacked two people

May 3, 2022 – Fresh communal clashes in Jodhpur on Eid, curfew imposed, internet suspended

April 4, 2022 – Internet shutdown in Karauli after communal clashes

March 16, 2022 – The internet was suspended for 12 hours in Jhunjhunu to let a religious procession pass peacefully without any communal tension

Another report written by Dr Kris Rujigrok, a political scientist working at the University of Amsterdam, contends that Rajasthan is ahead in the number of internet shutdowns imposed after J&K territory at 68 times till 2021, which is elucidated in his report titled ‘Understanding India’s Troubling Rise in Internet Shutdowns’ (published June 2021).

INDIA’S EXPANDING INTERNET CLAMPDOWN FOOTPRINT

Other Indian states are also not too far behind. IFF has filed several RTIs in all states and found that Rajasthan ranks ahead in internet shutdowns, followed by Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. “I think it is an exaggerated understanding of how the internet is used, the government feels it is only spreading hate speech, hate crime, etc. But they don’t understand that it is also the place to get factual information from,” said advocate Krishnesh Bhapat.

Uttar Pradesh ranks third with 30 internet clampdowns, followed by West Bengal at 16 times and Bihar and Maharashtra tied up at 12 times, as per Internetshutdowns.in, a tracker for internet clampdowns.

“Other states where Internet shutdowns are fairly common are Rajasthan (68), Uttar Pradesh (29), Haryana (13), Maharashtra (13), West Bengal (12). By contrast, there have been no recorded shutdowns in the states of Kerala, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Mizoram. There is variation across regions as well. India’s southern states seldom face internet shut downs while they are commonplace in the northern ones,” reported Dr Kris Rujigrok.

ALSO READ | Udaipur murder | Terror and tension in Rajasthan

The total number of internet clampdowns in India has reached 665 since 2012 when the first internet clampdown took place in India on January 26, 2012, internetshutdowns.in shows. Another digital advocacy group, Access Now, data shows in “The return of the authoritarianism” – Internet shutdowns in 2021 #KeepItOn – India was responsible for at least 106 incidents, making it the country imposing the highest number of shutdowns globally for the fourth consecutive year. Of these, 85 were in Jammu and Kashmir, a region where authorities continue to impose intentional internet disruptions that last for long periods.”

‘INTERNET SHUTDOWNS A POLITICAL ISSUE’

Dr Rujigrok raises a question what in India is making government’s trigger happy to clampdown on the internet? “In India internet shutdowns have become a first – instead of a last – resort for officials challenged with communal or social unrest. Rather than addressing a law and order situation caused by online fake news and misinformation, the use of internet shutdowns in India is inherently a political problem.”

He also opines, “The probability of an internet shutdown is 3.5 times higher if a district is ruled by a BJP state government.” However, this view falls flat in the case of Rajasthan, which is currently under the Congress party rule, Maharashtra (until the recent regime change after Uddhav’s exit) and West Bengal ruled by TMC’s supremo Mamata Banerjee are also not BJP ruled states.

Cyber security experts working on internal security believe social media had provided a larger landscape for misinformation to slip through the cracks to be used by propagandists to further their goals.

“The administration, alarmed by communal/religious ot hatefule incitement tries to control the misinformation campaigns. It has been found that most of these misinformation campaigns start across the border, some mischievous elements pick these up and propagate it across which creates agitation in the minds of the youth. Largely, youth are more involved in most protests, rioting, anti-government activities, whether it’s the recent protest and rioting in against the defence forces brought out Agniveer scheme in Bihar, or the anti-CAA protests or Jat agitation, etc. 95% of the cases the governments resought to internet clampdown to contain the law and order problems,” said Atul Tripathi, cyber security expert.

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“The Udaipur beheading incident is case in point because social media and online reach and internet penetration in rural India is now being used by negative elements to spread their propaganda through social media live broadcast further adding fuel to youth sentiments,” said Tripathi.

IMPACT – POLITICAL, SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC LOSS

In India, IFF has filed a petition in Jodhpur high court on behalf of the Udaipur Chambers of Commerce and Industries, asking the state government to comply with the Supreme Court orders on internet shutdown. “Businesses are most affected since their finances are centred around online payments. In areas which are tourist heavy in Udaipur and Jaipur as well Uber and Ola drivers have not been able to earn money as online payment systems or apps don’t work hampering jobs and livelihood,” said Bhapat.

India’s internet restrictions also accounted for more than 70% of the total loss to the global economy in 2020, as per reports. Statista data shows in 2019, India’s forced internet blackouts lasted well over 4,000 hours leading to losing over USD 1.3 billion third in the world’s most economically affected countries, after Iraq and Sudan. The World Bank recently calculated that internet shutdowns in Myanmar alone had cost nearly USD 2.8 billion from February-December 2021, reversing economic progress made over the previous decade. As such, the report warns that the full economic impact is likely to be much higher than the stated figures.

INTERNATIONAL SUPPRESSION OF INTERNET FREEDOM

In 2022, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the world watched, as unsurprisingly, Russian officials displayed little hesitation in blocking Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. After the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine as well as restricting website access to the international news networks such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and other American and European news networks, Russia claimed this was in reaction to Facebook’s discrimination. While banning social media platforms curtails the public’s options when it comes to communicating about the war or their dissatisfaction with Putin. The restrictions also impart a warning to other platforms about the consequences of going too far in removing Russian media outlets from their networks.

ALSO READ | Section 144 imposed across Rajasthan after protests break out over shopkeeper’s murder

Yet, Ukraine chose not to impose any internet shutdown during a full blown war with Russia, emphasising the need to stay connected with the western world and therefore, NATO countries. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy came out becoming a hero of the Russia-Ukraine conflict while speaking directly with its citizens and the world harnessing the internet’s reach and power to project a the image of a victim at the hands of Kremlin’s invasion.

CARROT AND STICK APPROACH?

The government is looking at more innovative ways of shutting down or reducing access to internet in the event that it wants to control misinformation. With the advent of the 5G technology in India, experts believe it will become difficult to bring in blanket internet bans.

“In the future, it is going to be difficult to impose internet shutdown when 5G becomes operational in India. Since there will be huge losses to the businesses, which will push back due to revenue losses. The law and order eco-system needs to route the state police, district administration and intelligence agencies by using technology that can effectively monitor what is emerging No social media platforms and emerging trends that could cause social disturbances,” said Tripathi.

So, what should be the approach of the citizens living in “liberal or partial democracies”? Countries could impose reputation and legal costs on governments and companies that indulge in such shutdowns say experts. On the other hand, states or governments could be incentivised when they maintain free and open internet access to its citizens.

HISTORY OF INTERNET SHUTDOWNS

It is not for nothing that India has been labelled the global internet shutdown capital. In recent history, India has been most trigger ready to impose internet shutdowns in the country. Some recent prominent instances – The Government of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has restricted access to mobile data in the Valley of Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370. This also happens to be the longest internet clampdown in India.

The first internet shutdown in India happened in 2012 in Kashmir. Later, many internet shutdowns were imposed in the wake of the deaths of hardline separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Burhan Wani.

In Delhi and Haryana, the internet was shut down following farmers’ protests. The Haryana orders are on social media but have not been uploaded on government websites. West Bengal imposed an internet shutdown in various districts to prevent question paper leaks during secondary school exams.

Challenging the government’s need to find more ways to impose internet shutdowns, in January 2020, the Supreme Court of India held that access to information from the internet as a fundamental right under the Indian constitution in the case of Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India.

While the apex court ruled that restrictions on internet access must be limited in scope, and allowed especially in cases of public emergency or a threat to public safety. On the contrary, India saw more instances of internet shutdown in 2021.


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