Protests in the times of Internet shutdowns

Delhi Jan 01, 2020, 01.36 PM(IST) Written By: Rachit Seth

Internet shutdown in parts of Uttar Pradesh, post protests Photograph:( AFP )

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There is a dire need for accountability, transparency, as also cost-benefit analysis to implement internet shutdowns.

This year, India has earned the dubious distinction of shutting down the internet and communication services for the largest chunk of the global population and for the longest period of time. 

Recent media reports have indicated that India was home to 67 per cent of the Internet Shutdowns globally in 2019. 

Internet Shutdowns are known to have terrible consequences on civil liberties, fundamental rights and have led to massive economic losses. These shutdowns have been used to curb protests and civil society movements, which thrive on attention and symbolism. When the state tries to strangulate the voices of dissent by shutting down the internet, it only amplifies the resistance against it.

A 2018 report by Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) analysing the economic impact of Internet shutdowns during 2012-17, found that 16315 hours of shutdowns caused the Indian Economy approximately $3.04 billion.

Furthermore, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has estimated the cost at close to 24.5 million rupees for an hour of internet shutdown. In 2019, Kashmir had continued to be under a blackout for more than 150 days. States of Assam, Meghalaya, and several parts of West Bengal also suffered a connectivity cut. Several areas in Delhi also suffered a blackout during the Anti-Citizenship Amendment, Act 2019 (Anti-CAA) protests. 

Moreover, 80 districts in Uttar Pradesh have been subject to intermittent internet shutdowns since the last week of December. Indiscriminate censorship of internet has occurred in India since 2012 implemented by governments of all hues and shades. 

An internet shutdown may be partial or complete. While a partial shutdown pertains to blocking of specific content or platforms, a complete shutdown is when all internet services are blocked without specific targeting. 

As per information accessed from the portal - internetshutdown.in - which is maintained by Software Freedom Law Centre, India (SFLC), there were a total of 93 internet shutdowns imposed in India in 2019. Of these, 72 were taken as preventive measures. Internet shutdowns in India are ordered under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017.

Under these rules, an officer – of no less than joint secretary rank in the state or Union government – may order the suspension of telecom services “due to public emergency or public safety”. The United Nations declared internet access a basic human right in 2016.

In India, though only the state of Kerala recognises this, following an order by the Kerala High Court in 2017. The legality of indiscriminate internet censorship has been subject to questioning by the legal fraternity, particularly with regard to the process that may have been followed in imposing these shutdowns. 

This also leads one to speculate as to why the government may take such a measure. However, the underlying reasons for internet censorship during a protest are to discourage people’s participation in protests and denying the protestors control over the narrative. 

Herein, we also need to look at how the role of the internet has evolved in protests. The term ‘networked protest’ has been used by scholars, for protests that use social media to organise them. These may include a call to mobilise, or arranging supplies. One of the first instances of these ‘networked protests’ are the protests that took place in the Middle East during the Arab Spring and the ‘India Against Corruption Movement’ in 2011. A networked protest strongly relies on the Internet to both disperse information and also avail that information. This is what happened recently in India too, in the backdrop of Anti-CAA and Anti-NRC protests. 

Protests are essentially symbolic public relations exercises to drive a narrative. Attention by the state fuels them and non-attention weakens them. The state is the most coercive actor. As Mahatma Gandhi puts it incomparably — “The individual has a soul, but a state is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.” 

The state has this irresistible temptation to exercise coercion. Purely from the state’s perspective shutting down the internet exposes lack of statecraft and a weak understanding of the phenomena of collective protests and how they are actually carried out.  Not only are internet shutdowns an assault on the personal and collective liberties of the people, they are also a tacit admission that the state’s coercive power is depleting. In mature democracies, shutting down the internet only provides the requisite adhesive to coalesce a collective action of a protest and intensify its purpose.

There is enough empirical evidence that shutting down the internet backfires, not just because it’s a draconian move to suppress dissent, but also because it provides the much-needed attention to the protests. In fact, in the digital age, attempts at censorship of the internet bring much more attention to the suppressed piece of information. This has been popularly termed as, the ‘Streisand Effect’. 

In 2003, American singer Barbra Streisand sued photographer Kenneth Adelman for displaying a photograph of her Malibu home, along with 12,000 other photos of the California coastline taken to illustrate coastal erosion. The picture had at that point been downloaded a total of six times, two of which were by Streisand's lawyers. 

The suit had the unintended consequence of drawing attention to the photograph, which suddenly became wildly popular and was rapidly copied to multiple mirror sites outside the immediate reach of US law. On December 19, 2019, when telecom operators announced through Twitter that they were following the government’s order of internet shutdown in parts of Delhi at about 12:15 PM, the social media platform erupted with multiple hashtags such as #IndiaAgainstCAA, #JamiaMilia, #CAAProtests #JantarMantar and such. An unplanned protest took place at Jantar Mantar prompting the government to close as many as 19 metro stations in the heart of Delhi. Subsequent to this, peaceful protests broke out in almost all major cities of India. Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh has been witnessing protests for 17 days where thousands of women are on a marathon sit.

Even during a complete internet shutdown, they need one single conduit to spread the information for a call to action. The violence which happened in Uttar Pradesh recently has come out in the public domain through the internet, even though there were complete internet shutdowns. The information has managed to find its way out. Social media is dotted with stories that people in Delhi have started using pollution masks and caps to dodge the facial recognition tools of the police. In Hong Kong, protests in 2014 were termed as ‘Umbrella Protests’ by the media as the protestors used a colourful umbrella to protect themselves from the tear gas and pepper spray. More recently, in 2019 Hong Kong protestors did not use their ‘Octopus Card’- a rechargeable smart card to use public transport and buy groceries because they were afraid that the government would track their database. Thus, acts of state repression, sometimes lead to innovative methods to circumvent it. This is clearly true for internet shutdowns, as well.

There is a dire need for accountability, transparency and a thorough test of inevitability, as also cost-benefit analysis to implement internet shutdowns. To take away a basic human right requires extraordinary circumstances like a foreseeable national security threat or a complete breakdown of law and order. Milder options which are less disruptive and cost-effective must be exercised first.  

The economic, social and ethical cost of any censorship on communication must be comprehensively weighed in before subjecting the people with such drastic action. Like the Supreme Court has made forced bandhs or hartals by protestors unconstitutional, it has now become necessary for it to examine the legality, social and economic costs of internet ‘bandh’ before enforcing them arbitrarily. 

(The article is co-authored by Prakriti Anand who is a former LAMP Fellow)

(Views expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)