From Kashmir, Assam, New Delhi to Karnataka, the frequency with which internet shutdowns are imposed has increased, with India’s tally of the same in different regions since 2015 reaching 350.
According to a report, India lost over $1.3 billion dollars to internet shutdowns in 2019 claimed a study conducted by internet research firm Top10VPN in January this year, coming in third behind Iraq and Sudan. But SC advocate Jayna Kothari, who was part of the team of lawyers who fought to get one such ban on the internet in Assam overturned last December, argues that the human cost of such shutdowns is far greater and most of the times, incalculable.
“Many states have imposed internet bans but for shorter periods, for one or two days, which are extremely debilitating, and by the time (the internet was restored) it didn’t need going to court. The danger is that even these short internet bans are being used so frequently that they are thought of as being okay,” she said.
Fighting Assam’s Internet Ban
A ban on mobile internet across 95 percent of Assam last December, in the wake of protests against CAA-NRC, disrupted lives of many. Kothari points out that the initial ban order was only for 48 hours, which the government kept extending in subsequent orders.
“Our main argument was that this kind of internet suspension is permitted only when there is a national security issue or there’s an issue with public order, or there’s a threat to public order. And none of those serious grounds were made out by the government in their own order. Like the order which banned internet and the repeated orders they kept on issuing were actually quite mild and their only reason given was a lot of rumours floating around on social media and WhatsApp,” she explained.
Kothari said that although the state kept claiming that broadband internet was still available, only 5 percent of the people in Assam rely on broadband internet while the remaining 95 percent use mobile net.
“Internet access is, of course, freedom of speech and expression. It is where we communicate, it is where we access information, the way we can give out information. It is a question of freedom of speech and expression, but it is much broader than that. It actually runs across all our fundamental rights.Jayna Kothari
‘Gig Economy Workers, Daily-Wage Labourers Worst-Hit’
Kothari said that those who are on the lowest rung of the economic ladder were the worst affected by the internet shutdown.
“In Guwahati, we saw that the ones who were really suffering are the gig economy workers. The Uber driver, the Swiggy delivery guys, whose earnings for the day depended on online orders. And when the internet was shut down, they went for days without their daily wages,” she said, adding that people with disabilities, who rely on the internet to access education, were unable to do so.
Inadequate Laws & Legality of Shutdowns
Kothari pointed out that the parent law under which the 2017 rules regulating shutdowns are issued only covers telegraph and telegraph-related wireless communication.
“You can’t have rules under a parent law that doesn’t cover internet at all. So I feel these rules are pending challenge, exactly for this purpose, because we didn’t have any law that governs or provides for suspension of internet,” she argues.
From regulating shutdowns, Kothari said that the conversation has to evolve to actually start questioning the legality of internet shutdowns altogether: Are they legal? What is the extent of the role internet plays in our life?
“We are far from being the world’s largest democracy, I think we are becoming an example of how to be the leader in internet shutdowns all over the world. It’s used only in a few countries where governments have been quite authoritarian. And I don’t think we should be going down that path.”Jayna Kothari