India Remains Internet Shutdown Capital of the World for Fifth Year Running: Report

Since 2016, India has accounted for approximately 58% of all shutdowns documented in the Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP database). India has also beaten Ukraine, which is at number 2 this year. India is the only G20 country that has imposed an internet shutdown more than twice. Russia and Brazil are the other two courtiers that enforced two and one internet shutdowns respectively in 2022.

New Delhi: For a fifth consecutive year, India is the world’s largest offender, out of all democracies, in terms of enforcing deliberate internet shutdowns.

Data compiled by global digital rights group Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition reveals that India implemented at least 84 shutdowns in 2022, the most of any country for year.

At least 187 internet shutdowns across 35 countries were recorded in 2022. Thirty-three of these 35 countries are repeat offenders. Internet shutdowns are a means to wipe out online communication, which directly impacts day to day functioning in an increasingly digital world, but they also have important and serious knock-on effects on democratic movements, and sometimes provide cover for violence, as reporting crime and making contact for support becomes hard to do. Authorities around the world shut down the internet due to “protests, active conflict, examinations, elections, political instability, and other high-profile national events” in 2022.

The #KeepItOn campaign was launched by a coalition of about 70 organisations in 2016. Since then, India has accounted for approximately 58% of all shutdowns documented in Access Now’s Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP database).

Source: Access Now report

“Internet shutdowns are dangerous acts of digital authoritarianism,” the report states. Ukraine comes a distant second with 22 shutdowns in 2022, followed by Iran with 18, and with seven internet shutdowns, Myanmar stands fourth in the list of countries with most internet shutdowns. (Although Myanmar’s internet shutdown lasted for more than 570 days.)

The report states that authorities used shutdowns to try to hide serious rights violations and sever communications between individuals and communities, which also impacted human rights monitoring, including shutdown tracking and provision of humanitarian aid.

The number of internet shutdowns in India for the year 2021 was 106. While recorded disruptions were lower than 2021, “the central government’s refusal to document and publish shutdown orders” likely means not all disruptions were recorded. “Legal challenges against shutdowns, fewer mass protests in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the sustained and increasing crackdown on dissent may have increased administrative friction or reduced the incentives for authorities to impose shutdowns,” the Access Now report stated.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communication and Information Technology headed by Lok Sabha MP Prataprao Jadhav noted: “It is surprising to note that records related to internet shutdowns ordered by State Governments are not maintained by either DoT or MHA and both the Ministries/Departments are not aware of the number of internet shutdowns imposed by the States.”

Some other key findings:

  • Indian authorities disrupted internet access at least 49 times in Jammu and Kashmir, including 16 back-to-back orders for three-day-long curfew-style shutdowns in January and February.
  • 2022 was also the year with the highest total number of shutdowns in the rest of the world to date.
  • People in many regions across Myanmar had been in the dark for 500+ days by March 2022.
  • By the end of 2022, people in Tigray, Ethiopia had endured 2+ years of full communications blackout, and many remain disconnected. That is, 787+ days of Internet shutdown.

India’s response to internet shutdowns

Currently, suspension of telecom services is presided by the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency & Public Safety) Rules, 2017, notified under the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885.  The 2017 Rules provide for temporary shutdown of telecom services in a region up to 15 days at once.

Since then, the Rules have been used by the authorities to curtail internet freedom in Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal, Rajasthan and other states. There are reports of Indian government’s throttling or suspension of internet services in regions struck by protest. Internet shutdowns were used during the Agneepath protests, the farmers protest, etc.

Source: Access Now report

The prolonged internet shutdown in Kashmir was challenged by Anuradha Bhasin, the editor of the Kashmir Times’ Srinagar edition. She argued the internet is essential for the press and that by shutting it down, the government forced the media to come to “a grinding halt”.

In Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, the Supreme Court of India ruled that an indefinite suspension of internet services would be illegal under Indian law and that orders for internet shutdown must satisfy the tests of necessity and proportionality.

After the Supreme Court judgement on the matter, the Union government made some amendments to the Rules in November 2020. However, in December 2021 the Standing Committee on Communication and Information Technology chaired by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor was not satisfied with the amendments and recommended more changes in the 2017 Rules.

The Committee recommended to review the Rules to address all aspects of internet shutdown, to make amendments in the Rules that are in tune with changing technology to ensure minimum disturbance to the public and issuing uniform guidelines for states/UTs before ordering an internet shutdown.

Even the 2023 report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communication and Information Technology makes critical observations about the Ministry of Home Affairs and Department of Telecommunications. The Committee headed by Prataprao Shinde, an MP from Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde faction), expressed its concerns over the non-maintenance of Internet Shutdown records. “The Committee find it unfortunate to note that no efforts have been made by the DoT and MHA to implement the recommendation of the Committee and maintain records related to internet shutdowns ordered by State Governments,” the Standing Committee report noted.

In a 53-page-long document, the Standing Committee has given a list of amendments and problems in the existing 2017 Rules.

Tackling disinformation

Governments across the world say that they enforce an internet shutdown to stop the flow of misinformation during a state of crisis.

However, reports have suggested that internet shutdowns work in an adversarial manner, as they enhance if not encourage the flow of misinformation. Case studies from Kenya show how social media sites and the government failed to stop the flow of misinformation and hate speech despite imposing an internet shutdown. “Disinformation and hate speech around the election period is a very serious issue in Kenya, but preventing people from using major communications platforms is not a proportionate or effective way to stem it,” an Access Now report stated.

In the Indian context, a study has shown that in Kashmir “rumors and disinformation continue to spread with or without access to digital communication networks, whose primary role is that of accelerators of information diffusion.”

Source: Access Now report

The only G20 country with a poor internet shutdown record

India has been referring to itself as the “Mother of Democracy” on the posters of the G-20 summit being held in India. The G-20, which “is the premier forum for international cooperation”, brings together the “world’s major advanced and emerging economies.”

But India will be the only country in this coveted group of 20 countries that has imposed an internet shutdown more than twice. Russia and Brazil are the other two courtiers that enforced two and one internet shutdowns respectively in 2022.

The report says that the problem is not just internet shutdowns, but the government having “honed their playbook by increasing censorship, blocking websites, and issuing takedown orders to social media platforms”.

India enforced an internet shutdown 84 times, in terms of what was reported, but the report cites fears that the number could be higher because of the government’s failure to publicly release shutdown orders, in violation of the Supreme Court’s judgment. The technical challenges in monitoring, tracking and recording shutdowns likely means that “we do not have a full record of all disruptions”.