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India's Internet Shutdowns Got Longer, Bigger & More Common in 2023: Report

A new report by Access Now also shows that India ordered the most number of platforms to be blocked last year.

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While India has continued to record the most number of internet shutdowns for a sixth consecutive year, Access Now has found that these shutdowns are also getting longer and more widespread.

In a new report published on Wednesday, 15 May, the digital rights group found 116 instances when the internet was blocked in various parts of India in 2023 alone. This figure reflects a 27 percent increase over the number of internet shutdowns imposed in India in 2022 (84).

A new report by Access Now also shows that India ordered the most number of platforms to be blocked last year.

Countries where shutdowns occurred.

(Photo Courtesy: Access Now)

But what prompted this many internet shutdowns in the first place? "In India alone, authorities ordered 65 shutdowns in 2023 specifically attempting to address communal violence," the report said.

"Overall, despite claims from authorities that they are shutting down the internet to curb violence during moments of tension, evidence shows that shutdowns are ineffective at doing so and likely have the opposite effect," Access Now added.

Snapshot

Here's a look at the other data points and insights in the report:

  • A total of 13 states and union territories ordered internet shutdowns in 2023.

  • Over 59% of shutdowns exclusively targeted mobile networks.

  • India experienced far more internet shutdowns than authoritarian states like Iran and Myanmar as well as war-torn regions like Ukraine and Palestine.

  • Shutdowns cost the country $1.9 billion and a loss of $118 million in foreign investment in the first half of 2023.

  • India has logged more than 500 internet shutdowns in five years.

  • India also recorded the most number of service-based blocking orders.

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Most Extensive Blackouts in Manipur, Punjab

In 2023, internet shutdowns in India weren't just more frequent. They were also stretched for more number of days and covered larger areas geographically.

The report found that shutdowns that lasted for 5 days or more grew from 15 percent in 2022 to over 41 percent in 2023. It also revealed that on 64 different occasions, shutdowns were expanded to cover more than one district in the same state, province, or region in India (as compared to 15 times in 2022).

Access Now attributed this jump to the 47 shutdowns ordered in Manipur as well as the four-day-long, statewide internet shutdown imposed in Punjab during the police's manhunt for alleged separatist leader Amritpal Singh in March last year.

A new report by Access Now also shows that India ordered the most number of platforms to be blocked last year.

Geographic scope of internet shutdowns is broadening worldwide

(Photo Courtesy: Access Now)

The report specifically highlighted conflict-ridden Manipur, where over 3.2 million people did not have access to the internet for 212 days last year thanks to a series of 44 shutdown orders issued by the CM Biren Singh-led state government.

Manipur's prolonged internet shutdown was reportedly meant to curb the spread of rumours and disinformation after ethnic violence erupted in the northeastern state on 3 May 2023. But the internet ban actually made it more difficult for women to report abuse, as per the report.

"The impacts were severe, particularly for women, as the shutdowns made it more difficult to document rampant atrocities, including murder, rape, arson, and other gender-based violence, and thereby hold perpetrators accountable," the report read.

For context, a shocking video of two Kuki women being paraded naked and assaulted by a mob of men had sparked outrage across the country in July 2023. But the video only went viral on social media months after the alleged assault took place due to internet restrictions imposed by the government.

While internet has currently been restored in most parts of the state, instances of violence continue to be reported from Manipur.

"In addition to Manipur and Punjab, authorities in Bihar (12), Haryana (11), West Bengal (6), Maharashtra (5), and Rajasthan (5) imposed shutdowns during protests, religious holidays, and exams," the report read.

Interestingly, internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir dropped from 49 in 2022 to 17 in 2023.

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What Triggered Internet Shutdowns in India & Elsewhere

In a first, Access Now found that 'conflict' emerged as the leading driver of internet shutdowns across the world in 2023.

"The devastating impact of internet shutdowns in times of conflict cannot be overstated, exacerbating people’s desperation, fear, and panic. Conflict-related shutdowns have put people’s lives in real danger or even resulted in loss of life, impeded delivery of humanitarian aid, and blocked access to emergency healthcare services. They have also made it extremely difficult for journalists and human rights defenders to document war crimes and other atrocities," the report read.

It also highlighted one instance of elections being the trigger for an internet shutdown in India, specifically in Nagaland's Kiphire district where internet access was cut off after post-poll violence broke out in February 2023.

A new report by Access Now also shows that India ordered the most number of platforms to be blocked last year.

Shutdowns that occurred alongside violence.

(Photo Courtesy: Access Now)

Besides internet shutdowns, Access Now's report found that India also ordered the most number of platforms to be blocked than any other country last year.

According to the report, India blocked two platforms in 2022 but that number rose to 14 in 2023. These 14 blocked platforms were messaging apps that were purportedly being used by terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, according to a report by The Indian Express.

The blocking orders were issued under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, on recommendation by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.

However, the report stated that such action against platforms "often disproportionately impacts targeted and marginalised communities or people who rely on them as their only viable mode of access to information and communication with loved ones, colleagues, customers, news sources, and service providers."

"When they cut mobile access, block platforms, or both, authorities make it clear that they intend to silence and repress a wide swath of the population, often leaving broadband services available for government services, businesses, and wealthy elites," it added.

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Why Increasing Internet Shutdowns Are a Problem

In its 2023 report, Access Now noted that most of the internet shutdowns in India are not in compliance with the law. "Four years after the historic Bhasin versus Union of India judgment, officials continue to fail to publish shutdown orders and have been repeatedly corrected by courts for failing to comply," the report read.

The report also found that 93 percent of internet shutdowns worldwide had been imposed without giving the public any advance notice.

Furthermore, cutting off access to the internet for many days is known to hurt people from poor and impoverished backgrounds that rely on government schemes for food and other benefits as signups and authentications in most of these welfare programmes have become digitised.

"It is unacceptable for India’s highest elected officials to repeatedly profess a commitment to a ‘Digital India’ even as they relentlessly order internet shutdowns impacting millions of the most vulnerable, at-risk people," said Raman Jit Singh Chima, the Asia Pacific policy director at Access Now.

"With over 500 documented shutdowns in the past five years, Indian government leaders must immediately commit to ensuring that the world’s largest democracy is internet shutdown free if they wish to be credible in their efforts to be recognised as global digitization leaders. They cannot claim to advance digital access for the world while disrespecting human rights in the digital age at home," Chima added.

Additionally, internet shutdowns deeply impact the Indian economy at all levels. "For people in a large section of the workforce in India, shutdowns can translate to no work, no pay, and no food. Shutdowns especially hurt marginalised groups who rely on the internet for newer revenue streams and for accessing gatekept opportunities," the report stated.

"Despite clear economic effects, disproportionate impacts on marginalised groups, and the shielding of atrocities, authorities continue to implement shutdowns at all levels across India during protests, exams, elections, and communal violence," it further read.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Internet   manipur   Blackout 

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