The Repercussions of Internet Blackouts


I N T E R N A T I O N A L  A F F A I R S


Yashfeen Karim


Farmers in India have been protesting for over three months against three bills that the government passed which aim to deregulate farming. The new laws, designed to corporatise Indian agriculture, will change the sales price and storage of farm produce. While the government says it will increase their income through more private investments, farmers deem it controversial. The bills threaten their bargaining power, increasing the possibility of exploitation by private companies. 

Although people have been protesting across states since November 2020, the world remained largely unaware. On 26 November, 250 million people protested, many marching in solidarity that began the momentum for the world’s largest labour movement. In response, state police instigated violence and chaos by attacking peaceful protestors.

What began as a peaceful expression of objection soon transformed into violent clashes between police and farmers. Protestors were shot at with tear gas, water cannons and bullets, water and electricity supply at the camps they set up were suspended, and men and women, including the elderly, were beaten with batons. Besides the police brutality, there have been many unlawful arrests of protestors and their family members, with several missing. Journalists too were detained by the police who were live streaming the event. Eight reporters who covered the violence on 26 January, 2021 — are facing baseless criminal charges, according to Humans Right Watch. 

However, what struck as a familiar chord to the Indian nation was the suspension of the internet during the protests. Thousands of farmers called for an “immediate reinstatement” of telecommunication services that were disrupted at protest sites at the Delhi border on 5 February. Without access to the internet, a social media blackout is created to stop communications between protestors and the world. 

What did frequent blackouts cause for those calling out for help?

Delhi police shutting down the internet meant that 52 million mobile phone subscribers were put to halt in their activities, and the farmers silenced by India. A large number of Twitter accounts which were sharing information about the farmers’ protests were blocked as well. 

An article by The New York Times reports how the company had “permanently blocked over 500 accounts and moved an unspecified number of others from view within India after the government accused them of making inflammatory remarks about Narendra Modi, the country’s prime minister. Twitter said it had acted after the government issued a notice of noncompliance, a move that experts said could put the company’s local employees in danger of spending up to seven years in custody.”

Twitter accounts like Caravan, an investigative journalism outlet and Kisan Ekta Morcha were banned under Section 69A of the IT Act. Section 69A is a legal provision that gives the government power to issue directions to block public access to any information available through a computer resource. Because it comes with a confidentiality requirement, the reasons for blocking and the source of its direction remain unknown. This denotes a lack of transparency in matters of freedom of speech, where citizens have the right to challenge blocking of online content, but are unable to do so since they do not have access to legal orders. 

When Twitter finally responded and restored the accounts, the company said that India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology sent Twitter “several separate blocking orders” over the past 10 days to restrict content under India’s Information Technology Act, passed in 2000, which gives the government power to cut off public access to information on the Internet for reasons of national security.

These superseding events ultimately generated global outrage from the diaspora using social media to raise awareness. It took the international community to call out the human rights violations committed by India for the government to even release a statement. 

Swedish environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg and pop singer Rihanna’s tweets of support for the country’s farmers, even though highlighting the situation, released more propaganda from the state. A day after Rihanna’s post, India’s Ministry of External Affairs released a statement criticising “sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others.” 

“Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken,” said the MEA press statement. It concluded with hashtags such as #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda, and further defended the laws claiming them to be the commencement of economically and ecologically sustainable farming. Crowds in Delhi further retaliated by burning effigies of Thunberg and Rihanna, protesting with banners that gave caution to intolerance to “international interference” in Indian affairs.

The world’s role in the history of shutdowns

A tactic long used by the state, India is popular and commonly recognised for its internet curbs. With 8,927 hours of blackout, India restricted its citizens’ internet access more than any other country in 2020. Before this, longer internet blackouts than this have occurred only in countries like China and Myanmar, not democracies like India, as stated by BBC News. 

“Many Indians — who are part of one of the fastest growing internet markets in the world — have criticised what they perceive to be a clampdown on free speech and a ‘regressive’ leadership whose knee-jerk reaction at the first sign of unrest is to suspend the internet,” the article presents.

During the lengthy communications shutdown in Kashmir that began in August 2019 and lasted till March 2020, people were completely unaware of the coronavirus pandemic in the world. A report published by MIT Technology Review describes how “mobile-phone services were often disrupted, and internet speeds were stuck at a plodding 2G”. This coma in Jammu and Kashmir was also quoted as the “the longest shutdown in a democracy”.

The blackout was exhaustive; there was no mobile internet, broadband, landlines or cable television. This disturbed communications for patients with their doctors. Omar Salim Akhtar, a urologist at the Government Medical College in Srinagar said, “We knew nothing about the virus. Even health workers were helpless. We had to ask people travelling outside Kashmir to download the medical guidelines and bring back printouts.”

In Darjeeling, following violent protests calling for a separate Gorkhaland state, the internet was cut off for over 100 days in 2017. Yet, India is not the only country to shut down the internet during incidents of police brutality and violent protests, people in Myanmar were also victims of a blackout from 6 February, 2021. During the recent volatile conflicted coup, the Myanmar military reportedly ordered telecommunications companies in the country to fully restrict internet and 4G services, according to Amnesty International. 

Be that as it may, the United Nations declared internet access as a humans right in 2016. The UN Humans Right Council has condemned measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to, or dissemination of, information online as a violation of international human rights law. Even so, India is the global leader in internet shutdowns despite being a republic. 

For the year 2015-2016, Darrell West, director of Centre for Technology Innovation, investigated that the global cost was a minimum of $2.4 billion due to the 81 internet shutdowns of that period. In the account by the Atlantic, “The country most economically harmed by its own internet shutdowns was India—by a long shot—which lost out on nearly $1 billion in GDP, according to West’s calculations. The bill for Saudi Arabia’s blackouts came to $465 million, Morocco’s was $320 million, and Iraq’s amounted to $209 million.”

Government-led blackouts resulted in the global economy a loss of $8 billion in 2019. Within that amount, Egypt’s shutdown cost the country $90 million, according to an OECD estimate. If it had been extended to a year, Egypt’s GDP could have declined by 4 per cent. 

How do internet shutdowns impact economies?

In today’s technology-driven world, an assorted number of businesses and services rely on the internet to secure their customers and monetary targets. A hiatus for the internet means entrepreneurs and offices are put to halt in their work, and medical procedures in the health industry are seriously impeded. In the latest episode of the pandemic and lockdowns throughout the world, these shutdowns also herald a major impact on education. Students completely dependent on online channels of learning also become neglected. Hence, a glaring loss in revenue and other opportunities is observed when communication is curbed

However, internet shutdowns predominantly jeopardise the voices of the anguished and the marginalised. The dangerous censoring, silencing, and oppression of any victim of injustice is accelerated with these restraints. It is usually a strategic tool for governments to stifle dissent and prevent the flow of important, urgent information.

In times of crisis, by putting the front of ‘public safety and precautions’, authorities instead paralyse people’s freedom and rights to expression. It revokes the rights of vulnerable groups and pushes their issues further away from the limelight, in the eyes of the world.

 


Yashfeen Fatima Karim’s world revolves around scrumptious food, an engrossing book, or a Netflix series she can binge-watch. 

 

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