‘A tool of political control’: how India became the world leader in internet blackouts
“I was employing 27 people but I had to lay off all of them,” he said. “I am feeling really bad for not being able to continue their jobs but there was no other way. Because of the internet shutdown imposed by the government, the entire business model of people like me comes crashing down.”
The government’s justification for cutting off the internet in Manipur was the outbreak of ethnic violence between the state’s two tribes, the majority Meiteis and the minority Kukis. Since then, the violence has taken over 175 lives and shows little sign of abating.
But what began as a short internet blackout, justified by the state on the grounds of maintaining law and order, then dragged on for months, wreaking havoc on the livelihoods and economy of the region. While broadband was reinstated earlier, albeit with strict controls, about 95% of people in India access the internet via mobile connections, meaning most in Manipur were unable to go online.
This is not the first time the Indian government has shut down the internet for indefinite periods. According to consecutive reports by Access Now, a non-profit that tracks state-imposed blackouts, for the past five years, India has shut down the internet more times than any other country – a total of 84 times just last year alone – affecting over 120 million people.
In the troubled region of Kashmir, after stripping the state of various independent rights, the government imposed an 18 month shutdown from August 2019 until February 2021 – the longest ever imposed in a democracy. Before that, in June 2018, the residents of Darjeeling endured a blackout that lasted over 100 days after unrest broke out.
Government suspends Internet service, Kolkata, India - 17 Dec 2019
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Avijit Ghosh/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock (10507929c) A notification message seen displayed on a smartphone regarding internet service being suspended as per the government instructions Government suspends Internet service, Kolkata, India - 17 Dec 2019 According to the official, the government has decided to shutdown Internet services in several districts to prevent rumours and circulation of fake news on the nationwide protest against NRC, CAB.
“We are at the point where the use of shutdowns has become completely entrenched in India,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific policy director at Access Now. “They’ve become weaponised as a tool of political control: at the first sign of protest, of unrest, of any form of dissent, the first thing they do is shut down the internet with almost no accountability.”
Yet India’s dubious title as a world leader in internet shutdowns – above authoritarian regimes including Russia, Sudan, Iran, Myanmar and Ethiopia – has also appeared to run counter to the vision of a “digital India” that prime minister Narendra Modi has proudly pushed since he was elected in 2014.
As Delhi hosted some of the world’s most powerful leaders at the G20 summit earlier this month, the Modi government used it as a platform to promote itself as a world leader in the digital revolution, boasting of a digital payments system which had is used for over 10 billion transactions in India a month and is now being copied globally.
“It’s totally contradictory,” said Chima. “One hand the country is boasting about how digitised our systems are and telling the world to follow us, and on the other they are imposing frequent internet blackouts so none of these digital systems can work, impacting millions of people and costing millions of dollars.”
In Manipur, the impact of over 140 days without internet has been significant. The shutdown created a de facto information blackout about the conflict, leading to the spread of misinformation and a months-long cover up of some of the worst abuses committed in the violence, including gang rapes and beheadings, particularly against the minority Kuki community. The economic impact has also been sizeable. According to a calculation by the Internet Society, the shutdown in Manipur has cost the state $6m and led to country-wide losses of over $4bn.
Residents spoke of being forced to shutter their once profitable businesses, students have been unable to complete their studies and for those working in the growing e-commerce market, either working for apps such as Uber or selling their products online, no mobile internet meant no employment.
State health, welfare and food subsidy programmes, many of which are entirely digitised, have also been severely affected, further complicating the issue of caring for the 60,000 people who have been displaced by the conflict and are living in makeshift camps.
Sadam Hanjabam, 34, runs a health NGO in Manipur that helps with mental health and trauma counselling said without the internet had been unable to reach out to people in need or fundraise.
“Generally, we would provide support to around 200 people every month,” he said. “But for the past four months, amid this internet shutdown, we have hardly been able to provide support to anyone now. Most of our services have come to a halt.”
Since 2017, when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government quietly drew up new rules under the colonial-era 1885 Telegraph act that gave them sweeping yet vaguely defined powers to shut down the internet without going through the courts, the internet blackouts have become almost routine in India. In July, as communal riots broke out in the state of Haryana after a Hindu nationalist right wing group held a rally, the internet was cut for several days. Earlier in March, after a firebrand separatist leader went on the run from police, a statewide shutdown was imposed on Punjab. The internet is also frequently cut off during school exam periods as a measure to prevent cheating.
The BJP government have justified the internet censorship on a law and order basis, with home minister Amit Shah alleging that in cases such as Kashmir it had “prevented bloodshed” and “saved the children”.
Yet according to experts, this has little basis in evidence and instead they say shutdowns in India have contributed the erosion of freedom of speech and civil liberties under the Modi government, and has even encouraged human rights abuses and violence, away from the watchful eye of the online ecosystem, while shielding the state from accountability for any failures.
In Manipur, it took over three months for the mobile video of a young Kuki woman being stripped naked and gang raped to reach the internet and go viral, awakening many in the country to the atrocities being committed with apparent impunity, after months of misinformation and fake news circulating unchallenged. Suan Naulak, a Kuki activist in Manipur, said that the “prolonged ban has been used by the state to control the narrative and push its agenda: it was completely one sided”.
Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Internet Freedom foundation said that the lack of accountability and transparency in how internet shutdowns are ordered and who by, both at state and national level, was also “highly problematic”.
While under the law, the government can not issue a shutdown order that lasts longer than 15 days, and all the orders must be made public, Waghre said that in reality that rarely happens. In the case of Manipur, since 25 July, no updated order on the shutdown was published and the decision to turn mobile internet back on was suddenly announced by Manipur’s chief minister N. Biren Singh on Saturday.
A cross-party parliamentary group that monitors internet regulation has repeatedly raised issues with how internet shutdowns are imposed but these have simply been ignored.
Yet as many have been keen to highlight, the shutdowns have tended to economically affect the most deprived in society. Most welfare schemes are all online and digitised, and without internet, many are unable to get their benefits, cash transfers and can not even register to receive food subsidies given to the poorest in society.
“Internet shutdowns impact everything from the right to food, to the right to work and right to healthcare,” said Chakradhar Buddha, senior researcher at Libtech India, a group who work on behalf of those left behind by the digital push. “They are not just an inconvenience, they are a violation of basic human rights.”