Rights Not Loaded: Internet shutdown disrupts life

It was a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the school year, and students at a public university in Meghalaya noticed that their web pages had stopped loading. Homework is half done, research is incomplete, and deadlines are approaching. “More than 50 of us were forced to connect to a Wi-Fi router to try and do our work,” said Abha Anindita, now a journalist.

The chain of events was sparked in June 2018 when mobile internet service was suspended in seven regions due to the “serious law and order situation”.

Four years later, in 2022, internet shutdowns have become a dreaded but expected occurrence in Meghalaya. On November 22, a 48-hour closure was announced in some areas, which was later extended. “We were without internet for almost a week,” recalls Abha.

Also read: Government fails to keep records on internet shutdown

The moratorium on the 2022 shutdown suggested “adverse events” that could “disturb the public peace and tranquility and pose a threat to public safety,” adding that messaging and social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube could be used to For conveying “potentially exciting” information.

As the week progressed, however, it was the shutdown that disrupted daily life the most – with online transactions, deliveries and essential services ground to a halt. Students preparing for boards, patients unable to reach doctors, and job seekers struggling to get to job interviews are all on the front lines.

During the more than 500 shutdowns imposed over the past five years, citizens from all walks of life have witnessed several severe disruptions to their lives, livelihoods and futures.

Shemphang John Pyngrope, who owns a tea stall in Shillong, said the multiple shutdowns in Meghalaya over the past few years had affected his business and his rights. “The internet shutdown has made things very difficult because most customers pay online these days,” he said. The owner is forced to drop credit or leave without doing his normal business.

Image credit: DH Graphics

This is common in several states, especially in high tension areas. Jammu and Kashmir has had the most shutdowns so far (418), followed by Rajasthan (96) and Uttar Pradesh (30).

In addition to affecting day-to-day activities, shutting down internet service can limit basic human rights, including the rights to education and health.

It also disrupts communication channels, making it impossible for people to contact and update their loved ones during emergencies. In tense situations, people are kept in the dark. “The internet is how we connect with others in a crisis, but during the shutdown, the government has taken away that from us,” Shemphang said.

We became completely unaware of what was going on because there was no way to get updates,” he added.

Internet disruptions also undermine the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly. “Shutdowns don’t allow information to flow, stop people from communicating and organizing. In the long run, it limits freedom of speech and expression,” said Karan Saini, a cybersecurity researcher who works at the Center for Internet and Society.

Also read: SC rejects pleas for frequent internet shutdowns by states

However, India, the world’s largest democracy, recorded the most internet shutdowns for the fifth year in a row. According to the Access Now global database, there will be 84 internet outages in India in 2022, followed by Ukraine (22) and Iran (18).

At first glance, the number of internet shutdowns in India has been decreasing since 2018. However, a closer study shows that the average duration, as well as the number of areas closed, has increased over the years.

Moreover, shutdowns have become a more commonly used tool of the government over the past decade. According to the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC.in), there were only six shutdowns in the country in 2014. However, over the past five years, there have been at least 80 per year.

In recent years, lockouts have been increasingly used as a tool to maintain law and order before or during protests. A 2020 research paper found that shutdowns were especially used to suppress protests in BJP-ruled states. “While there are exceptions such as Rajasthan and West Bengal, it is clear that this trend is more pronounced in the BJP-ruled states and is more prevalent in the northern and northeastern states than in the south,” Politico Says Kris Ruijgrok. Scientist and postdoctoral researcher, has been studying the disturbing increase in internet shutdowns.

While the government insists that the internet shutdown is a measure to “prevent misinformation”, “maintain law and order” or protect “national security”, research does not support this claim. In fact, a 2019 study of internet blackouts in India found that internet shutdowns were “strongly associated with an increase in violent collective action” compared with nonviolent mobilization. It further emphasized that blackouts forced protesters to use violent means when they were unable to communicate and coordinate non-violent means of protest.

At odds with the intent of addressing misinformation, closures can exacerbate the situation by creating an information vacuum. Shutdowns create an unsafe environment because they prevent access to legitimate sources of information and communications, Saini explained. “Internet shutdowns will also affect news coverage of the protests,” he added.

State-imposed restrictions make reporting human rights violations particularly difficult. According to the 2022 Global Cost of Internet Shutdown Report, 51% of intentional internet shutdowns are linked to other human rights violations.

This was also evident in the anti-CAA protests in 2019-20, when the country witnessed 6,315 hours of internet shutdown, according to SFLC.in. Uttar Pradesh reported 12 work stoppages amid the protests, with the longest work stoppage extended to 175 hours. It was at this time that thousands were detained and several were killed.

Even economically, a shutdown would cost the country enormously. In fact, a 2020 study estimated that India suffered a total loss of $2.8 billion from internet shutdowns.

Furthermore, Radhika Jhalani, a volunteer legal adviser at SFLC.in, said there was no real yardstick to explain the full scope of the problems caused by the shutdown. “Bearing the brunt are daily wage workers, women and marginalized communities who rely on mobile internet,” she said.

While broadband service and wired connections are still available, access to mobile internet is suspended during most shutdowns. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India reported that over 96% of internet users in India use mobile data, and disruptions in mobile internet immediately created a digital divide. Although official statements describe the measure as a means to keep the shutdown precise and targeted, only 4% of users can afford a broadband connection, while most remain overwhelmed.

multiple influences

The crackdown on the protests, coupled with long-term damage, is not evident in Kashmir’s case. Access to the Internet has been under threat for the past few years. According to official figures, UT has witnessed a total of 415 internet shutdowns between 2012 and 2022.

From August 2019 until the restoration of 2G internet in January 2020, the region witnessed the longest democratic internet shutdown in the world. It took the authorities 18 months to restore 4G service.

Also read: Internet Shutdown: Questionable honor for fifth place this year

The impact is profound. Gone are the online help groups that provide medical help and emergency blood donations to heart patients without an internet connection. Patients receiving online therapy were stuck for more than a year.

Unable to contact family members or pay fees, many women were forced to interrupt their studies and move back home in Kashmir.

Even after 2G service was restored, journalists relied on an internet center set up by the government at a hotel in Srinagar. Initially, more than 300 journalists waited hours to use the center’s four computers and a mobile phone.

Only 2G service is allowed, and being classified as an “internet slowdown” can only be considered a partial reprieve. “In these cases, there is no meaningful connection because one cannot work and the video cannot be loaded with 2G data,” Radhika said.

With the shutdown seemingly endless, many researchers have had to move out of Kashmir to complete their assignments. “I had no choice but to move out to get the literature needed to finish my dissertation. I had to fly to Delhi and work there,” says a student at the Department of Neurology, Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, Srinagar. The doctor said.

State governments have repeatedly demonstrated that internet moratoriums are necessary to protect human life and prevent terrorism. Among its justifications, it said no one had died in street protests after August 2019.

government responsibility

In 2017, the procedure for the suspension of Internet service was notified under section 7 of the Telegraph Act 1855. The Temporary Suspension of Telecommunications Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules outlines that the power to issue internet shutdown orders rests with the Union Home Secretary or State Home Secretary. Prior to this, closures were mostly ordered by magistrates under section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

The Supreme Court in 2019, in Anuradha Bhasin v Union of India, challenged the 2017 regulation multiple times and eventually expanded the 2017 regulation. The new guidelines argue that government restrictions on internet access must be temporary, limited in scope, lawful, necessary and proportionate. The SC also emphasized that closure orders must be made public and subject to judicial review.

However, these measures have not been satisfactory. “Even when rules are in place, they are often not followed. Shutdowns are implemented without orders being issued. In some cases, they are issued months later or not at all,” Kris said. While rules require a closure order to be issued before suspending services, in the case of J&K, the November 2021 closure order was only issued the following year.

Even after being notified of the new rules, some states continued to suspend Internet service under Section 144.

ambiguous parameter

“It’s clear that a shutdown can be used as a tool of repression, as it was in Kashmir,” Chris said. In other cases, they simply become part of standard operating procedure in response to conflict or unrest. “With no accountability and no one being punished, shutdowns become part of a ‘better safer than sorry’ approach, especially when dealing with community tensions,” he said.

Closing is the right to deny access to the Internet across the board. Internet access was recognized as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court in 2019 and defined as a human right by the United Nations. “A shutdown can never be considered a proportionate or necessary measure under international human rights law, or arguably, under the Constitution,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director and senior international adviser at Access Now.

“The only restrictions permitted are those that are specific, targeted and satisfy the tests of necessity and proportionality,” he added.

The consensus among civil society, researchers and citizens is clear – shutting down the internet deprives people of the opportunity to gain fundamental freedoms and basic rights. “It was crucial for the federal government to accept that India has an internet shutdown problem. Unfortunately, it was rejected,” Raman said.

Pointing to the government’s failure to respond effectively, he added, “the government has categorically sidestepped the Supreme Court’s order to review the rules and has not responded to a request by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on this.”

In less than three months, nine shutdowns have been reported through 2023. Their disastrous economic, social and psychological consequences are clear. “Lockdowns must be unthinkable. Unfortunately, they are the lowest-hanging fruit that governments often turn to,” Radhika said.

(Input from Zulfikar Majid in Kashmir)

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