India, with its world-leading biometric ID database and innovative digital payment system, is no stranger to the power of connected technology. However, when faced with political unrest or sectarian violence, Indian authorities have resorted to a drastic measure – internet shutdowns. These shutdowns, aimed at curbing disinformation, have become a common tool for the government to control the flow of information. While they may serve their intended purpose, the consequences of these shutdowns are far-reaching and affect millions of people who rely on the internet for communication, information, and business. This article delves into the impact of internet shutdowns in India, examining the reasons behind them and their implications on various aspects of society.
India, known as the world’s largest democracy, has also garnered the unfortunate reputation of being a global leader in internet shutdowns. According to the New York-based online freedom monitor Access Now, India accounted for 84 of the 187 internet shutdowns recorded worldwide last year, marking the fifth consecutive year of having the highest number of shutdowns. The government has cited protests and the prevention of cheating during exams as the primary reasons for these shutdowns, as revealed in an analysis by the Internet Freedom Foundation. While these shutdowns allow the government to shape its narrative without counter voices, the authorities fail to fully comprehend the wide-ranging consequences of such actions.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) argues that internet shutdowns disproportionately affect the poorest segments of society, who heavily rely on the government’s online social support systems. According to an HRW report, nearly 121 million people were affected by shutdowns in 2021. These shutdowns hinder access to essential services, such as healthcare, education, and employment opportunities, which are increasingly dependent on digital connectivity. In Indian-administered Kashmir, a 500-day blackout in 2019 and 2020 resulted in an economic loss of more than $2.4 billion, adversely affecting businesses and stifling trade. The impact is particularly devastating for small-scale traders and businesses that rely on online platforms for payment and transactions.
Internet shutdowns also pose significant hurdles for journalists who strive to report accurately and objectively. When protests turned violent in Maharashtra state, authorities responded by cutting off the internet for three days. Journalist Vinod Jire from Maharashtra’s Beed district attested to the difficulties faced in fulfilling his duties during such shutdowns. Forced to leave the district to file his story, Jire emphasizes that the responsibility of journalists is to report facts and news accurately. The absence of reliable communication channels puts journalists at a disadvantage, hampering their ability to cover unfolding events promptly.
The Indian government argues that internet shutdowns are necessary to curb disinformation and prevent rumors from spreading on social media platforms and mobile messaging applications. However, advocates for internet access, such as Tanmay Singh from the Internet Freedom Foundation, highlight that disinformation can still spread offline. Singh notes that fact verification and fact-checking, which primarily happen on the internet, are essential tools in combatting misinformation. Moreover, internet shutdowns do not address the underlying causes of conflicts and tensions, even if they temporarily slow down the spread of hate. Indigenous tribal leader Ginza Vualzong in Manipur underscores that an internet ban does not resolve deep-rooted communal divisions.
While internet shutdowns may seem like a quick-fix solution for curbing disinformation and maintaining control, the negative repercussions far outweigh the intended benefits. These shutdowns disrupt the lives of millions of people who rely on the internet for communication, information, and livelihoods. The poorest segments of society, who depend on the government’s online social support systems, are disproportionately affected. Journalists, tasked with reporting the truth, face immense hurdles when internet access is severed. Internet shutdowns may provide a temporary respite, but they fail to address the root causes of conflicts and tensions. It is crucial for authorities to consider alternative methods and technologies that ensure the flow of information while protecting against disinformation, without resorting to drastic measures such as internet shutdowns.