India has a dubious record of net disruptions
India in 2020 maintained its dubious record as the country with the largest number of internet shutdowns. The nation suffered a loss of $2.8 billion as a result, which is around 68 per cent of global economic losses due to such disruptions. Events in January 2021 make it likely that the 2020 record will be exceeded. According to 10VPN, an independent research group focused on digital privacy, the global economy suffered $4.1 billion in economic losses in 2020 due to government-mandated internet shutdowns. The country with the highest number and longest durations of shutdowns was India, which imposed 121 stoppages (Venezuela was second with 12 shutdowns). The 10VPN conclusions are backed by reports from many other researchers from the UN, Brookings Institution, etc.
This makes a mockery of the oft-stated vision of building a hyper-connected society and economy, with smart digital services from the government and private sector. The shutdowns also crippled access to education for the affected regions during the pandemic. January 2021 has seen shutdowns in most of Haryana, and parts of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. The affected populations run into tens of millions. While the largest number of shutdowns was supposedly to aid in maintaining law and order, they have also been for apparently absurd reasons such as preventing cheating in exams. The legal mechanism is opaque and it has been gamed cynically after a Supreme Court judgment ruled that indefinite shutdowns were unconstitutional. While every shutdown now has a maximum duration of 14 days, successive shutdowns can be, and often are, imposed to indefinitely deny access.
In addition, speeds can be throttled to 2G levels, rendering it impossible to access digital services. In technical terms, the net is not “shut down” in such cases; it is merely unusable. This has been the case in Kashmir since March 2020.
The UN has a policy brief that says cutting off users from Internet access, regardless of the justification provided, is disproportionate and a violation of Article 19, Paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It calls upon all nations to ensure Internet access is maintained at all times, including during political unrest. Human rights experts assert that shutdowns are also often associated with abuse by security forces, as it provides an “invisible cloak” for such misdemeanours. It is not clear if the shutdowns do aid in maintaining law and order. Unverifiable rumours can spread and those are likely to be believed in the absence of credible information to the contrary. This can lead to further disturbances.
Internet shutdowns are, therefore, a blunt instrument described by an expert as “performing brain surgery with an axe”, when it comes to cooling off public disturbance. They do, however, clearly cause massive disruption to normal life. Commerce breaks down, and ATMs and credit cards don’t work. Darjeeling district in West Bengal, Kashmir, Jammu, and Ladakh have willy-nilly reverted to becoming cash economies with locals being denied long-term access to the digital finance ecosphere. The knee-jerk response of shutting down the internet at the first sign of public protest has to be reviewed, given the enormous, visible costs it imposes on normal citizens in their daily lives. It is unclear if there are indeed benefits, and better ways of managing public order must be found.