Opinion: India Using Internet Shutdowns to Suppress Unrest
By Kruti Suchde
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Sanford Journal of Public Policy.
Prime Minister Nerenda Modi’s Digital India initiative aims to provide every citizen of India with access to digital services, knowledge, and information. Only 26% of India’s population had internet access in 2015, despite it being the second largest online market in the world.  However, this number is growing steadily— approximately 36% of the population, or 481 million people, had access to an internet connection at the end of 2017. 
Hiding beneath this progress is a disturbing trend that threatens the basic principles of India’s democracy. Since 2012, parts of the country have experienced a steep rise in internet blackouts. This year alone, there have been 113 internet shutdowns, making India the country with the most internet shutdowns in the world.  Pakistan comes second with just 19 shutdowns.
In 2017, the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 was extended to include blackout regulation. The government can shut down the internet by invoking Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to curtail riots and nuisance in emergencies.  The Supreme Court of India has maintained that the government should only invoke Section 144 as a last resort during emergencies.
However, the blackouts have increasingly become a preventive and convenient measure taken by the government. Blackouts have mostly been implemented in areas where there has been political turmoil or military action, and sometimes to prevent cheating in areas where exams are being administered. But internet access is especially critical in situations of unrest so that families can keep in touch and people can access relevant and legitimate information.
The decision to invoke internet blackouts conflicts with Modi’s vision of digitizing India’s economy. Many businesses are now dependent on digital transactions—there is a large e-commerce market in India, and the government has encouraged people to go cashless. Blackouts are not only affecting social media access, they are impacting businesses and cutting people off from banking services. A Brookings Institute study revealed that India lost $968 million due to internet shutdowns in 2015.  With such severe impacts on the economy, internet blackouts should only be considered as an option in dire situations when it is believed that no other solution will yield a result.
The government’s explanation for these blackouts seems to be controlling the spread of rumors in the targeted area and to block internet content. But the government cannot invoke Section 144 to prevent rumors as spreading rumors is not technically illegal unless it disrupts peace. A majority of the citizens should not lose their right to free speech due to the fear that a minority may cause trouble.
According to the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), the non-profit organization tracking these blackouts, there is a lack of transparency in terms of when and why the government approves any internet blackout. Citizens have not been consulted on any of these decisions when they are being impacted the most. SFLC depends on journalists, telecom operators or citizens for information on when internet blackouts have occurred.  This lack of transparency leads to a lack of trust in the government by its citizens.
The government’s disregard for the economic impact of blackouts as well as the violation of people’s fundamental rights will hinder the Digital India Modi envisions. Citizens have the right to know when and why they will not have access to the internet. In times of unrest, mobilization of law enforcement has to be the first response, not blocking the internet. If Modi wants to achieve a Digital India, his government must stop treating internet shutdowns in a casual manner and establish a transparent internet blackout policy.
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“Number of Indian Internet Users Will Reach 500 Million by June 2018, IAMAI Says - Times of India.” The Times of India, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/number-indian-internet-users-will-reach-500-million-by-june-2018-iamai-says/articleshow/62998642.cms. Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.
“Government of India Issues Rules for Internet Shutdowns.” MediaNama, 28 Aug. 2017, https://www.medianama.com/2017/08/223-internet-shutdowns-india/.
“Internet Shutdowns Have No Place in Digital India.” NDTV Gadgets360.Com,
https://gadgets.ndtv.com/internet/features/internet-shutdowns-have-no-place-in-digital-india-1666641. Accessed 23 Sept. 2018.
Kruti Suchde is a second-year MPP student interested in international development and public-private partnerships.