Decoding India’s dubious distinction as world’s ‘internet shutdown capital’

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India ranks first globally when it comes to shutting down the internet, earning the dubious distinction of being called the “internet shutdown capital” of the world.

Recently, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, in its report, ‘Suspension of Telecom and Internet Services and Its Impact’, called for defining the parameters and setting up of a robust mechanism for internet shutdowns.

The committee noted that the frequent suspension of telecom services and the internet affected life and liberty of people, and that it caused a huge setback to the economy of the country.

Internetshutdowns.in, an internet tracker maintained by Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), records that there have been a total of 550 internet shutdowns in India so far since 2012, and over 50 per cent of these shutdowns were imposed since 2019.

“We source these shutdowns through media reports and suspension orders that are issued by the governments. These orders are not publicly available, which are then to be procured by filing applications under the RTI Act,” Prasanth Sugathan, Legal Director, SFLC.in told indianexpress.com.

The Tharoor-led committee noted that there is no centralised mechanism which maintains a database recording internet shutdowns imposed throughout the country.

The longest shutdown, according to internetshudowns.in tracker, has been in Jammu and Kashmir. It was 552 days long, when no internet or low speed (2G) internet was available. It was imposed there on August 4, 2019 and lifted completely on February 6, 2020.

A total of 550 internet shutdowns since 2012 and over 50 percent of these shutdowns were imposed from 2019. (Photo: Internetshutdowns.in)

Impact of Internet shutdown on economy

When internet services are suspended, the ability of people to freely express themselves gets limited, journalists struggle to upload photos and videos, students are cut off from their classes, accessing health care services gets difficult and the economy ultimately suffers.

India leads the global tally in suspension of internet services over the past decade. In 2019 and 2020 alone, internet and allied services remained suspended in India for more than 13,000 hours, with as many as 164 instances of shutdowns being enforced.

Top 10 VPN, a leading Virtual Private Network review website, reported in 2020 that the internet was shut down in India for 8,927 hours, and it cost the country over US$ 2.8 billion (Rs. 20,973 crore). This means that the average cost of an Internet shutdown in India in 2020 was over Rs 2.34 crore per hour.

According to Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), telecom operators lose Rs 24.5 million per hour in every Circle Area where there is a shutdown or throttling, the Parliamentary committee stated in its report. “Other businesses which rely on the internet could lose up to 50 per cent of the afore-mentioned amount,” it said.

Long-term internet shutdowns have even more far-reaching impacts like shutting down of businesses, loss of livelihood and children dropping out of schools.

Kazim Rizvi, founder of Dialogue, a privacy policy think tank, has highlighted how internet shutdown also affects the internet as a whole. He said when a complete internet shutdown occurs in a given country, the impact could extend beyond the country’s borders to the rest of the global internet. Being part of an interconnected network means having responsibility towards the network as a whole, and shutdowns hold the potential to generate systemic risks.

“People routinely depend on the internet to stay in touch with family and friends, create local communities of interest, report public information, hold institutions accountable, and access and share knowledge,” he noted.

Studies show that in the past five years, India has suffered significant economic losses owing to internet shutdowns. “The frequent internet outages affect our reputation globally…internet shutdowns adversely impact India’s reputation as an attractive business destination,” Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said in a statement.

When internet services may be shut down

The grounds on which such an order may be issued include serious law and order challenges leading to a case of “public emergency” or a situation that threatens “public safety”.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), however, informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee that public safety and public emergency — often used by the state and Central governments to justify the suspension of telecom and internet services in an area — are not defined under Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, and so it is left to the “appropriate authority to form an opinion” on whether an event threatens public safety and emergency warranting an internet ban in an area.

Sugathan points out that the telecom suspension rules clearly provide for an internet suspension to be imposed only in a situation of a public emergency or for public safety that has to be done in accordance with Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act.

“Therefore, no internet shutdown can be imposed unless there is a public emergency or a threat to public safety. Any internet shutdown imposed on grounds other than these two is arbitrary and illegal,” he added.

‘Frequent shutdowns not a solution’

“No, internet shutdown is definitely not a solution to most of the problems that the government intends to solve using internet shutdown,” Sugathan asserted.

Internet shutdowns have also been used as a tool of “administrative convenience” in the past, such as for curbing cheating in exams. “Shutdowns imposed to stop rumours or fake news often give rise to panic among people as this stops them from receiving information from legitimate sources as well,” Sugathan noted. The Rajasthan government imposed a shutdown to stop cheating in the REET exam, he said, adding that cheating still happened through other means.

While IFF points out that there is no empirical evidence to claim that the internet shutdowns prevent public disorder. “In fact, research demonstrates that in times of public unrest, the internet enables individuals to seek help, verify news and maintain contact with family and friends — all of which contribute to the restoration of peace.”

Meanwhile, to prevent the misuse of provisions related to suspension of telecom services, the parliamentary panel suggested that the government must put in place a proper mechanism which could immediately decide on the merit or appropriateness of telecom/internet shutdowns. “Defined parameters of what constitutes public emergency and public safety may also be adopted and codified so as to ensure that there is no ambiguity in deciding the ground by different states while implementing the Suspension Rules.”

Experts told indianexpress.com there is an urgent need for a better legislative framework with strong safeguards that would not allow the government to shut down the internet in an arbitrary manner.

“There is a need for legislative reform in terms of having better checks on the power to suspend the internet, greater transparency and better maintenance of records of internet shutdowns,” Sugathan said.



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