Internet Shutdown in J&K: Creative Approach Needed, Not Blackouts
The government should work with stakeholders to develop alternative techniques to check misuse of the internet.
This week, 300 WhatsApp groups were shut down by the state administration in Jammu and Kashmir. Internet services were also severed. With these two interventions, the government claims to have reined in a majority of the stone-pelters in the Valley.
Internet shutdowns have become a common tool to maintain law and order in India.
These incidents have come under severe criticism from Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and the media for infringing upon individuals’ right to freedom of expression. The administration has been accused of Kafkaesque measures. But there has been little deliberation within the government or among the public to understand why law enforcement agencies shut down the internet and what alternate approaches can be adopted to maintain law and order where the internet is abused.
Internet Blackout, an Easy Option
My analysis shows that internet is shut down in India only as a last resort and in emergency situations. Often, the internet is shut down to stop the social media from further fuelling riots.
In such situations, law enforcement officials find it difficult to identify the perpetrators due to end-to-end (E2E) encrypted mobile messaging applications and the absence of technical support.
Procedural delays in the requests for access to data from foreign technology companies under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) impedes the investigation process. Blocking the internet often appears to be the simplest solution available to the District Magistrate (DM).
Even though shutting down the internet may not be a popular measure, most politicians support it. “In violent situations it is more important to save lives than letting people book Ubers,” said a former chief minister, surmising that controlling violence is more of a priority than providing internet access.
Ethics vs Security
Critics believe that internet shutdown is not justified under any situation. They argue that denying people internet access affects their right to freedom of expression, access to medical assistance, and information in emergency situations. They also argue that often a person’s inability to freely communicate in a riot-like situation can cost her or his life.
Complex issues of ethics and morality (saving a life versus freedom of expression) make the government’s stand hard to counter. At the same time the questions raised by the CSOs are not wrong. While there is likely no right answer, the onus is on the government to engage with all stakeholders and look for pragmatic ways to solve this problem.
Shutting down the internet may be an option at present, but in future, the political, administrative, and economic feasibility for doing so is only going to lessen. As more and more people use the internet to access services, search for information, and conduct business, even momentary loss of the internet may cost the country billions. Internet penetration in India has already increased from 193 million users in 2013 to 462 million users in 2016. The Government of India, under the Digital India Mission, has further committed itself to providing universal access to broadband by the end of 2018.
The government at the national as well as state levels should adopt the RITES approach – renegotiate, involve, train, engage, and streamline.
First, it should work with other governments of the world to renegotiate the MLAT to reduce the delays associated with cross-border data sharing.
Second, it should involve civil society organisations in information, education, and communication campaigns to educate the public on how to engage with social media.
Third, it should build its technical capacity by training officers in latest technologies and by developing knowledge-sharing platforms where DMs can collaborate to share tactical skills from prior experiences of shutdowns.
Fourth, law enforcement agencies should engage with citizens by creating WhatsApp helplines, where communities can notify officers about sensitive content floating on social messaging apps. These groups can also be used by officers to engage in “counter-messaging” efforts to quell rumours.
Fifth, the government must streamline the current legal framework relevant to internet shutdowns by removing overlapping legislations and clarifying processes.
Creative Approach to Curb Misuse of Internet
We live in an age of mass consumption of content on social media, so what we see, hear, and read online has a tremendous impact on the way we perceive the world. The use as well as abuse of the internet will continue.
As a proactive democracy, however, India needs to develop a more creative approach to strike a fine balance between protecting citizens’ rights and maintaining law and order.
The central governments should closely work with the states, law enforcement officers, technology companies, civil society organisations, and the public at large to develop alternative techniques to check misuse of the internet.
A proactive government that chooses to engage and find solutions to such complex problems will gain credibility amongst the masses. This may very well be one of the first few steps towards resolving the ongoing conflict in the Valley.
(The writer is Fellow, Centre for Public Leadership, Harvard University. He can be reached @mehuljain19. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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