Internet shutdowns are growing at an alarming rate in India. The country was second in the world in the first half of 2023, according to SurfShark’s half-yearly analysis of internet shutdowns worldwide.

An internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of internet-based communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unavailable, for a specific population, location, or mode of access, often to exert control over the flow of information. 

Of the 42 internet shutdown events that occurred worldwide, nine were in India, between January 1 and June 30, 2023. Iran topped with 14 cases in that period. Pakistan came third with three cases. With the top three being Asian countries, the continent accounted for 71 per cent of all new cases.

“It is deeply concerning to witness the alarming surge in internet restrictions in India, particularly as so many of them occurred amid protests. These restrictions severely limit people’s ability to spread information to the rest of the world, organise further protests, and contact friends and loved ones,” stated Gabriele Racaityte-Krasauske, Surfshark spokeswoman in the half-yearly report.

J&K tops, Manipur fourth

From 2012 to June 30, 2023, Jammu and Kashmir recorded the highest number of shutdowns in India (422), followed by Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh with 97 and 32 cases respectively. This is according to the data sourced from the Internet Shutdown Tracker by Software Freedom Law Centre, an organisation that works on defending digital freedom.

Manipur came fourth in the country, with 25 events. On May 4, 2023, two Kuki women were paraded naked and gang raped by a group of men in Manipur. However, the incident came to the limelight much later, on July 19 when a video of the same started surfacing online. N Biren Singh, Chief Minister of Manipur said there are hundreds of similar cases and that’s the reason why the internet has been banned in the State.

Following violence between Meiteis and Kukis, on May 3, the internet was banned in Manipur. On 25 July, after 83 days, the State government partially lifted the internet shutdown in the State, with broadband services restored with some conditions but mobile data continue to be banned.

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A threat to democracy?

According to Internet Shutdown Tracker, between 2012 and 2023, India recorded a total of 741 cases of internet shutdown. The three cases in 2012 rose to 49 cases in 2023. 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 saw 135, 109, 132, and 101 cases respectively. Some of the developments that led to the shutdown in this period include the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019, the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, and the introduction of Farm Bills in 2021.

Srinivas Kodali, a researcher on digitisation, said internet shutdowns are not isolated issues but rather violate many rights of people. “During internet shutdowns, several fundamental rights are being violated. People are not able to protest and their freedom of expression is violated,” he said.

Internet shutdowns were declared a violation of freedom of expression in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, 2020 by the Supreme Court of India.

Protests, a major trigger

Surfshark’s analysis also reveals that more than two-thirds of government-imposed internet restrictions worldwide (a total of 30) in the first half of 2023 were triggered by public demonstrations.

“The internet serves as a lifeline for communication, information sharing, and activism, and its restrictions during times of political turmoil pose a significant threat to democracy and human rights,” Racaityte-Krasauske said in the report.