In 2014, Indian Redditors began discussing net neutrality when Airtel decided to charge extra for Voice Over IP (VoIP) services like Skype. This discussion led to the launch of netneutrality.in (later renamed to savetheinternet.in), a website that explained the importance of net neutrality and Airtel’s threat to it. Now they have formed the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) to take on the larger issues of net neutrality, free expression, privacy, and innovation.
Internet shutdowns, including those that impact social media sites or entire networks, occur when governments intentionally disrupt the Internet or mobile apps, often used in the context of elections, demonstrations or other tense social contexts. According to Access Now, there were 56 Internet shutdowns recorded worldwide in 2016. The Internet Society has released a recent paper highlighting the techniques and ill effects of internet censorship, including the created collateral damage. Nicolas Seidler, Senior Policy advisor at the Internet Society, explained that fromcensorship to SMEs going out of business, the human, economic and technical costs of Internet shutdowns are just too high, caused by internet shutdowns.
Internet shutdowns costed countries 2.4 billion dollars in 2015.Estimations for 2016 are likely to go higher as there was an increase in the shutdowns this year. Governments shut down the internet more than 50 times last year.However, even those figures may not convey the full scale of the costs as the research looked at short-term shutdowns in 19 countries over the year.Per news agency IPS, the actions may have suppressed elections, limited free speech, and have even been associated with human rights violations.
Coming to India, there were 31 Internet Shutdowns in 2016. Between 2014 and the end of 2015, Internet shutdowns cost Indian businesses almost $1 billion.Figures released by the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi, indicate that 11 Indian states have forced 37 internet shutdowns in the past two years.Report from the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Brookings Institute shows that India and Iraq share the dubious position of reporting the highest number of incidents involving government mandated shutdown of internet access. In fact, India joins Algeria, Iraq and Uganda in the list of countries where internet services has been suspended even on the grounds of preventing potential cheating in exams.
Most of these disruptions are being carried out by state government agencies, often under the terms of broad legal powers — such as Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure — derived from 19th century British Raj era provisions meant to empower police units and district administration officials to enforce curfew and confiscate property. The Telegraph Act — via Section 5(2) — provides for a more specific legal power to restrict or otherwise interfere with the transmission of messages but this provision lacks defined procedure when it comes to internet shutdowns. This very section was originally used to justify the tapping and interception of phone calls, until the Supreme Court in 1998 held it would be unconstitutional if the government did not specify additional, clearer rules on the process of issuance and safeguards regarding such interception orders.The Indian legal system also contains a number of provisions which limit free expression. Some – like the erstwhile Section 66A – laws specifically made to censor online speech, which arevague, medium specific laws that have a chilling effect on online speech.
Hence legal justifications offered for shutdowns, including the prevention of unlawful assembly, are far too narrow to sustain any measure with this breadth of undesired social consequence. To remember is that routine assertion of urgency is not sufficient justification for limiting all communications across the economic, educational and private lives of tens of millions of citizens. Another justification is that this is done to prevent the circulation of rumours, but internet is not, and never has been, the only medium for this. The same medium could be used to dispel rumors by using to spread the right information at the right time. Further as an example during the Kaveri riots in 2016, Bengaluru police used Twitter and WhatsApp effectively to prevent panic and highlight police presence in volatile areas.
In Digital India, every policy decision about the Internet affects the rights of citizens. In a time when the country wants to move towards more and more digitization to increase accountability, any threat to the medium of functioning of this goal of digitization is certainly going to further harm the already skeptical populace to move forward.In a cashless India every Indian’s privacy and freedom to participate in the market depends on Internet policies as well as the decisions of the Supreme Court concerning constitutional rights in the face of such policies.
Because the future of the Internet depends on our ability to trust it, concerns around Internet access restrictions and fragmentation should be our primary focus in the next few years, if we want to drive a digital India. Living in Digital India can be either a blessing or a curse depending on how we carry our democratic values into this new age. Shutdowns, which are a negative expression of the idea of digital sovereignty, are fit only for undemocratic societies.
Each and every one of us need to participate in the signature campaign to voice our concern demanding for more freedom and better laws for governing the internet and to disallow arbitrary control by the government over this medium. Please sign the petition here .