Arvind V Prakash
Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India guarantees the Freedom of Speech and expression and involves social media platforms too (Like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.). In Fahima Shirin R.K. Vs. The State of Kerala (2019) the Hon’ble High Court gave judicial recognition to internet access as the fundamental right. National Telecom policy 2012 also recognizes the right to broadband connectivity as a “basic necessity like education and health”. The recent nationwide anti-CAA-NRC protest has led the authorities to make Internet clampdown in several parts of the nation. The government’s justification in the name of maintaining “Peace and tranquility” seems contrasting not just to the Right to Speech & Expression but also to the right to protest.
Almost two weeks back I was in my hometown at Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh. The entire state in the line of the nation was facing the stir of anti –CAA/ NRC/NPR protest. As a safety measure, the government rolled down internet shutdown in sensitive areas. The experience of disconnectedness led me to think about the crisis which people of Kashmir are going thru since the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. The famous proverb of Roti, kapda aur Makaan (Bread, Cloth, and House) has now been supplement with the Internet for me.
What does Internet shutdown mean:
An internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of Internet-based communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unavailable, for a specific population, location, or mode of access, often to exert control over the flow of information.
The termed Internet shutdown was highlighted during the Egypt uprising in 2011 when the internet was disrupted by the government almost for a week to restrict the flow of communication of the protestors.
The synonyms for Internet shutdown could be “Internet Kill Switch”, “Digital Curfew”, “Internet Blackouts” etc.
Supreme Court held Internet Shutdown as “Abuse Of Power” by the sitting government led by Narendra Modi. According to Supreme Court’s Justice N. V. Ramanna, “The indefinite suspension of Internet Violates India’s Telecommunications rules”. Apex court held that aggrieved people should have a chance to challenge the internet shutdown.
Internet Shutdown and its effects:
Impact on Business:
According to the report of ‘The Global Cost of Internet Shutdown in 2019, there were over 100 Internet shutdowns in 2019 in India making it highest across the globe. With internet blackout of 4129 hours, India suffered a loss of $1.3 billion in its economy. This figure could be one of the potential reasons for the GDP slowdown. Banking, ITeS, and several new startups like Zomato, Swiggy, Cab rentals, etc are the ones who are directly impacted by the Internet Blackouts. The image of the highest internet lockdown country also has detrimental effects on the Government’s Core of the core scheme like ‘Make in India’ since any investor prefers a calm a cohesive business environment and the volatile situation is something which keeps business entities at bay.
Sairee Chahal, Founder & CEO of SHEROES said, “SHEROES work with women from over 20k locations and internet shutdowns have adversely impacted our daily business. Internet serves as a lifeline for income for many and shutdowns changed that negatively”
Impact on Society:
People are not able to connect to the rest of the world. On the other hand, people of Kashmir who are based outside Kashmir are not able to connect to their parents, relatives. Faheem, a student based at Chandigarh facing trouble connecting to his parents back at Kashmir. This situation mirrored in almost all the areas where Internet curfew has been imposed. Praveen Kumar, an Uber driver based at Greater NOIDA, finds it ultra difficult to get business since internet services were suspended. If he gets the booking from the internet accessible area to the area where the internet is blocked, the trip remains a challenge for him. A day without earning for a Cab driver could prove disastrous both in economic and social terms.
In the words of Faisal Farooqui, CEO of mouthshut.com, “Internet shutdowns are a violation of the Constitutional right to Freedom of Speech & Expressions. It causes damage to the economy, individuals and businesses. They also cause long term harm to the people of the affected regions by denying them access to knowledge”.
For Rajesh Sharma, who drives an Ola cab “day would not start for him without internet since it’s the source of their bread and butter” Sharma added, he has to look after a family of four and he is the only bread earner of the family. Other expenses like education, EMI of the car, other expenses, etc are entirely based on the existence of the internet. And held that if the problem persists for few more days then would have to surrender himself to the moneylender, who charges exorbitant interest rates.
A positive outcome of the Internet ban is that there exist groups based on caste, religion and other divisional factors, and their major agenda is to propagate fake news and distorted information. Due to Internet clampdown, such rumors or fake propaganda gets a temporary halt. However, that’s just partial benefit and not a permanent solution in Toto.
Internet shutdown in Kashmir:
With the Abrogation of Article 370, a complete shutdown of internet services from August 4, 2019, had disrupted the communication channels in the valley. According to the report of Software Freedom Law Center, more than 60% of the internet shutdown of the country happens in the Kashmir valley.
In the words of Raees, a resident of Srinagar while sharing his experience of Internet shutdown in valley said, “ Ab toh aise aadi ho gye hai, jaise internet naam ki koi cheez hi nahi ho” (Now we are so used to as if there exist no such thing as the internet”. According to Raees, Tour & Travels, ecommerce are the business affected most since August 4, 2019. The students are facing tough situation since no internet condition does not allow them to fill online forms for various universities and for the competitive examinations. He added that, “Hum bahar ki khabron se update nahi ho paa rhe hain ki baahar kya chal rha hai and isolation feel hota hai” ( We are not getting update of what’s going in the outside world, and we feel isolated).
If students would not be able to fill forms for either educational institutions or for the competitive examination, a possibility of radicalizing youth persists there. Though local government at their level has opened some Internet centers, however, they are facing long queues due to remoteness.
The Apex court held that an indefinite suspension of internet services is impermissible and directed the government to review the orders suspending internet services in the valley. This court direction came as a hope of light in the era of ‘communication darkness’ in Kashmir’s history. Supreme Court also reminded government the power of Supreme Court of Judicial review and held that orders of suspension of the internet in Kashmir are subjected to judicial review.
Data Outage Post CAA-NRC protest:
Parliament passed the Citizenship amendment bill on 11th December 2019. Since then there was mass protest reported from the length and breadth of the country. The outage of internet Post CAA was first reported from Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya followed by West Bengal, Parts of Uttar Pradesh, etc. At least 9 states faced Internet Outage due to CAA-NRC protest. It was the first-hand experience of the National Capital, Delhi and Delhiites to understand the term Internet Shutdown. According to internetshutdowns.in India leads the world in 2019 with 106 Internet shutdowns. India ranks highest in the number of internet shutdowns in 2016. According to ‘Access Now’ (an internet advocacy group) in 2018 also India holds the peak position which a share of 67% of the world’s total Internet shutdown. According to internetshutdown.in there have been more than 319 documented internet shutdown since 2017. By any means, these are the achievements which added no feather to its cap.
There have been sharp contrasting views given by officials and the people for Internet shutdown. According to the report of State of Internet Shutdown around the world, 2018, “official justification” given was Public Safety, National Security, Fake news/Hate Speech, School exam sabotage/third party action and others. The same report mentions “Actual reasons” as Political Stability, protest, communal violence, elections, information control, exam cheating, etc.
Rather than restricting the internet, govt. should flow the information through their own channels to counter fake news or propaganda of anti-social elements. Complete block down of the internet can lead to several versions of the real unaltered facts and stories.
Through the means of the Internet, the Law Enforcement agency can circulate the information about the miscreant and the help of common people could be ascertained by their active participation in maintaining the Law & Order. This would be looking at glass as half-filled rather than half empty. Running advisory on media is the best alternative to the Internet shutdown.
To avoid the fake propaganda authorities can have a direct and active dialogue with social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc to notify the miscreant and take suo-motto action based on documented proof. However, a neutral approach free from political pressure is inevitable here.
In the case of Kashmir as interim relief to students, the local government had opened up some Internet centers, however dire need to increase their numbers make them accessible for people in the remotest part of the Kashmir persist there.
The Government must understand that holding peak positions consecutively is detrimental in economic terms and disastrous for its democratic image.