Internet Shutdowns Are A Costly Affair, And India Leads In Them

For the fourth straight year, India recorded the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world in 2021, showed data released last week by tech policy think tank Access Now. As many as 106 of the 182 internet clampdowns registered globally were in India. It was another year when residents of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) were subjected to internet blackouts intermittently even though the longest-ever shutdown had already been lifted in February 2021. Every shutdown comes with heavy costs: its benefits are unclear, and rather, research suggests they may be counterproductive. Will local authorities see otherwise?

1. Majority share

Between 2016 and 2021, internet services faced varying restrictions in at least 567 instances in India, more than half of the 931 such incidents recorded globally. Pakistan is ranked next, with 40. Actual numbers may be much higher than recorded, the report noted.

Access Now defines an internet shutdown as an intentional disruption, making the internet or electronic communications inaccessible or effectively unusable for at least an hour. Authorities in many countries impose such shutdowns to suppress dissent, silence critics, and control the flow of information during elections, Access Now said. The global count had dipped in 2020 due to the pandemic, but rose again in 2021.

A Parliamentary panel said in December 2021 that only J&K, Delhi, Kerala and Bihar had submitted written records of internet shutdowns in 2020 and 2021. It also expressed displeasure at the Centre’s lack of awareness on whether the standard operating procedures were being followed while imposing such shutdowns. “Suspension rules have been grossly misused leading to huge economic loss and also causing untold suffering to the public, as well as severe reputational damage to the country,” the committee said.

2. Paradise lost

J&K has borne the greatest brunt of internet blackouts in India since such data became available. In 2021 as well, out of the 106 shutdowns, 85 were imposed in J&K. This figure is fewer than the 93 shutdowns recorded in 2020 but more than the 81 registered in 2019. Pulwama, Srinagar and Kulgam were the worst affected districts in 2021, with services disrupted more than 30 times.

The government claims that most of these shutdowns were ordered for counter-terrorism measures, to quell unrest and keep anti-national elements at bay. Experts feel otherwise. “An internet shutdown cannot be justified in any situation as it has a disproportionate impact on fundamental rights,” said Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at Access Now. In January 2020, the Supreme Court had declared access to the internet as a fundamental right. “There is no evidence to suggest that internet shutdowns are effective in achieving the said goals,” she added.

3. Prolonged clampdowns

The longest-ever high-speed internet blockade in India finally ended in February 2021 after 4G data services were restored across J&K after 550 days. Services had been snapped since the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, and were being restored only in a staggered manner. This was also the third longest shutdown in the world to be lifted in 2021, the others being from Pakistan (2,026 days) and Myanmar (593 days). However, there was little respite, particularly for residents of the Kashmir valley, as high-speed internet shutdowns continued intermittently throughout the year.

Blockades were also recorded in the National Capital Region and parts of Haryana during protests by farmers against a set of controversial laws that have since been repealed. In one incident, both broadband and mobile internet were suspended for eight days in 16 districts in Haryana in February 2021, which also became the second longest shutdown in India last year.

4. Costly affair

Internet shutdowns have serious economic and social ramifications. They cost India $583 million in 2021 alone, estimates Top10VPN, a global digital privacy and research group. The research, based on a 2016 Brookings study, used indicators such as the internet economy’s share in GDP, mobile subscription coverage and use of free services such as Google and Facebook. The Brookings study had estimated that India lost around $968 million due to shutdowns between July 2015 and June 2016.

The long internet shutdown in J&K overlapped with the first wave of covid-19, affecting access to healthcare and education. Quarantined patients could reportedly not get in touch with families, contact-tracing efforts were hindered and doctors struggled to communicate. Online classes were difficult due to curtailed bandwidth.

J&K had lost around $420 million during 2012-17 due to such clampdowns, a study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations had found earlier. This significantly hurt tourism and e-commerce.

5. Meagre benefits

While there is little evidence to prove that internet shutdowns serve the intended purposes of restoring peace, stop misinformation and curb terrorism, studies have shown that they often have the opposite effects. A 2019 working paper by Jan Rydzak observed that communication blackouts after violent unrest only strengthens it instead of quelling it. It also noted that rumours and disinformation continue with or without access to digital communication networks.

The United Nations’ Human Rights Office has also observed that in situations of conflict and unrest, internet disruptions “exacerbate risks of further violence and insecurity”. The South-Asia Terrorism Portal recorded a spike in terror-related incidents in J&K in the two years after Article 370 was abrogated.

“In any crisis people need to access and share information,” said Maheshwari. “When they are closed off from the internet, which is one of the primary sources of information, it is only going to result in more unrest.”

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