The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) did not extend an order to suspend Internet beyond 11 pm on 2 February at Singhu, Ghazipur and Tikri --the three locations bordering Delhi where farmer groups continue to swell to protest against the three farm laws passed by Parliament last September. However, protesters at the three locations have said internet services remained blocked or severely affected on Wednesday and Thursday as well.
Free speech experts have spoken up on the numerous adverse impacts of internet shutdowns, especially in creating information silos and amplifying misinformation and rumour mongering rather than control them.
This appeal has been backed by voices from the border protest sites who have spoken up explaining the variety of problems faced, including the amplification of false information and rumours across the three locations.
“There was a blast in Delhi near the Israel Embassy on 29 January but due to no internet being available a rumour spread that a blast has occured at the other protest site,” a farmer at Tikri border said over telephone.
Shoutdowns Create Information Silos: Experts
Three civil soiety organisations - Software Freedom Law Centre, India; Internet Freedom Foundation and Free Software Movement of India - issued a joint statement on 1 February, enumerating the adverse impacts of an internet shutdown and calling on state and central governments to restore internet services.
“The harm caused by these internet shutdowns outweigh any speculative benefit,” the joint statement by the three online civil rights organisations said in its statement.
Prasanth Sugathan, Legal Director, Software Freedom Law Centre, India (SFLC.in), explained how information silos are created when access to internet is cut off.
“News breaks on the internet first and a number of media outlets are digital only. To know about anything that is going on in the world, it is important that internet is accessible,” Sugathan said adding “shutting down the internet means that no one can know anything. No messages, no news, no verification. There is no incoming or outgoing news.”
None of us are aware of even emergency numbers, we google them and find out. There is no other source of obtaining information without internet. It is also impossible to verify information without using the internet so in case there is a rumour, which happens a lot in areas where internet is shut down, people can’t verify the information about it.Prasanth Sugathan, Legal Director, Software Freedom Law Centre, India (SFLC.in)
Misinformation Gets Amplified by Shutdowns
Further, the joint statement explains that these internet shutdowns are causing massive inconvenience to the general public living near the protest sites and in adjoining areas.
Tikri portesters have spoken about how the protest sites are vulnerable zones and how in the absence of internet rumours and fake news of various kinds were spread after the 26 January shutdown and the difficulty in countering them.
“At Singhu when stones were pelted on 29th we tried to find out what happened but due to poor connectivity could hardly figure out what was going on,” a farmer at Tikri border said.
“Another example is that there was a blast in Delhi near the Israel Embassy but some people started saying that a blast has occured at the other protest site. We can’t rely on television or ‘godi media’ for accurate reporting so in a way this created a big problem for us.”
The joint statement by the online civil rights organisations also add “ shutting down the internet also prevents citizens from verifying news that they receive, therefore it doesn't stop the spread of fake news and misinformation.”
Unable to Procure Basic Necessities: Farmers
Farmers are also finding it hard to get supplies in absence of internet and SMS services which is impacting their right to life. “Moreover, whatever is happening at the border, we are unable to communicate that with the outside world either through social media or via WhatsApp,” the farmer said.
“For example there is a big water problem here at Tikri. We are unable to talk about it or reach out to others to help us with drinking water, food supplies,” the farmer said.
“Another example is that they have removed the portable toilets from Tikri which has caused immense difficulties. Now what do we do? How do we even raise this issue effectively?” the farmer at Tikri border further added.
Lawyers Urge CJI to Step In
On 4 February, group of 140 lawyers has written a letter to Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde urging him to take cognisance of Centre's direction to impose internet shutdowns at Delhi’ borders where farmers are protesting against the three farm laws.
The lawyers have suggested to the CJI that the apex judiciary should direct the MHA to “restrain from imposing further Internet shutdowns at the protest sites and adjoining areas.”
“If we are unable to exercise our freedom of speech it will directly benefit those who want to spread rumours and create chaos,” the farmer protester at Tikri border said.
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