A governance failure on Internet Shutdowns in India

Two key levers leading to a policy gridlock are a lack of transparency and irrationality. Both are playing dutiful twins, supporting each other in the state apparatus which is approaching this issue under the blanket of national security

Courtesy HT (Mass cheating in Hajipur, Bihar)

Internet shutdowns have many names. An online curfew, network bans, information blackouts, and our favourite for its augury, the digital kill switch. It captures the growing centrality of electronic communications in modern society. Going beyond the mere disruption to a flow of information, to a halt to life itself.

What explains internet shutdowns?

Access to the Internet is not only a recognised human right but practised tangibly in Digital India by the second highest number of Internet users in the world. A growing number, which according to the telecom regulator, includes about 4 in 10 Indians. But worryingly the Internet continues to be shut down, in more states and with higher frequency. Take the case of a recent state services exam in Rajasthan for which mobile Internet services were shut down in the cities of Ajmer, Bharatpur and Jodhpur in early August. This was the third such instance in recent months.

Such disruptions are clearly disproportionate and even counterproductive. Extensive arguments have been made by many organisations and researchers, who have clearly established that Internet shutdowns set a domino in motion that damages fundamental rights, the digital economy and, in instances, even public safety and order. Despite these, there seems to be a hardening of positions both in the legal rules which authorise shutdowns, and their increasing execution which is becoming a standard measure in the administrative toolkit. What explains this?

Secrecy in number and rules

Two key levers leading to a policy gridlock are a lack of transparency and irrationality. Both are playing dutiful twins, supporting each other in the state apparatus which is approaching this issue under the blanket of national security but is ultimately being used in instances to prevent cheating in entrance exams. Since the practice of state governments to shut down the Internet was first noticed in India in 2013, people started keeping count. By maintaining a number with the date, the reasons and the place of occurrence. With the when, where and why, we could be educated and form a national policy that weighed the competing interests at play. While some organisations maintained trackers built primarily off press reports (given that most RTIs were refused), there were constant demands, even questions by members of parliament, across party lines, to gain knowledge of such data.

The answer has been evasion as the central government till date has refused to provide any count or centralise a reporting and disclosure system. We should not fear such data, and that such calculation may put us to shame, for even existing news reports , India enjoys the top rank as the global leader in the number of Internet shutdowns. These trends were apparent even in 2016 before the central government made legal rules to regulate Internet shutdowns. These rules were made without any public consultation or even a ministerial or high-level bureaucratic statement despite the prominence of the issue.

Vague rules and creeping irrationality

What was further worrying was several of its clauses seemed to be broadly drafted, giving extensive grounds to shut down the Internet without safeguards or oversight mechanisms as has been recently pointed out in an analysis by Nakul Nayak, legal fellow at the Internet Freedom Foundation. To get to know more about these rules, the Internet Freedom Foundation filed a series of representations, that culminated in RTIs and Appeals. The result was another dead end, in which the response refused information on who was consulted for the drafting of the rules, what were their comments on them, and vague references were made to national security. This secrecy prevents an objective examination of not only the rules but permeates their implementation which fails on any definition of reason.

The primacy of human life

For many of these concerns, a standard response is that Internet shutdowns are used in states with problems of militancy and as precautionary measures for security. Let us be clear. There cannot be any higher value than human life. But we certainly cannot punish entire populations of a region, deprive them of Internet access to secure their safety. This by itself, even if a measure limited in time to a few hours, is a precipitous path. Restrictions on rights, when left to unaccountable systems, ultimately increase in severity as they become a normalised implement of administrative control. This is precisely what has happened over time on the issue of Internet shutdowns.

Disconnecting a digital state

Coming back to Rajasthan, there is little to no evidence on how and what cheating was curbed with cutting off access to the Internet. There is a complete absence to engage meaningfully in other policy alternatives which are less restrictive, or even the consideration of more traditional, natural options such as more invigilators in exam halls, better measure for depositing mobile phones at entry gates or in case of paper leaks, launching a criminal investigation. In an age and time, in which data-driven policymaking is de rigueur, there is almost a fatalist humour which often characterises the excess of state power.

Two days before the Internet was shut down, a tweet from the Twitter handle of the Ajmer Police was hastily deleted after being ridiculed on July 12. It translated to, “From midnight 13 July Internet will be shut down in all of Rajasthan due to the Entrance Exam. Candidates are requested to download their admit cards in advance by the e-mitra service”. While we hope this makes the reader smile, our sincere hope is that this subject is addressed with greater seriousness by the government.

This article is co-authored with Raman Jit Singh Chima who is the Policy Director at Access Now and was first published in the Hindustan Times on November 12, 2018.

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