India File

The trauma of internet shutdown

Forum Gandhi | Updated on January 14, 2020 Published on January 14, 2020

Shutdowns in India in 2019 are estimated to have led to a loss of over $1.3 billion. Forum Gandhi reports on the cost and the pain

Furqan Qureishi’s KartFood was once known as the Zomato of Kashmir. The 25-year-old started KartFood in 2017 with zero investment, eventually raised ₹10 lakh and had a turnover of over ₹35 lakh per annum within a year. In August 2019, the food delivery company had to shut shop. The internet shutdown ordered by the Centre has forced Qureishi out of business.

Another poster boy of start-ups in Kashmir, Kashmir Box, had to put up a notice on its website apologising for its inability to deliver products and respond to queries.

The e-commerce platform deals in Kashmiri goods, including handicrafts, saffron, and clothes. Muheet Mehraj, founder and CEO of Kashmir Box, says over 2,000 artisans and their families have been affected. The homegrown online marketplace had to lay off most of its employees and is unsure when it would be able to resume operations.

Qureishi and Mehraj are just two among hundreds of small entrepreneurs and businesses impacted by internet shutdowns in various parts of the country. The shutdown in Kashmir, which was imposed on August 5, is now the longest ever in a democratic country. Prior to this, India already had the dubious record of having the most number of internet shutdowns.

 

According to #KeepItOn coalition, a global movement of over 150 organisations across 60 countries working together to fight internet shutdowns, India was responsible for 67 per cent of the world’s documented shutdowns in 2018. Most of these were reported from Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra. Since 2014, there have been 370 shutdowns ordered by the Centre and various State governments, of which nearly 100 shutdowns were reported in 2019 alone, according to internetshutdown.in

Examples of the internet shutdown circumvention tools shared by #KeepItOn coalition

 

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Home Affairs told BusinessLine that in the era of fast social media dissemination of information/misinformation, internet shutdown is resorted to in select areas to avoid the breakdown of law and order and possible damage to human life and public property.

“The shutdown is always based on analysis of intelligence inputs and is subject to periodic review. This is a preventive measure used by the law & order administration as a last resort to address mass protests, civil unrest, so as to ensure peace,” the spokesperson said.

No governance solution

But internet activists, law experts, and human rights agencies say that the Centre’s position is not only undemocratic but also flawed because there is no real evidence of Internet shutdown actually helping in preventing mass protests or civil unrest.

“This practice of shutting down the internet not just disrupts the smooth functioning of the state at large but is also not in line with the fundamentals of democracy. Internet shutdowns make human rights a hostage to the whims of the executive: the fundamental rights to speech, conduct business, access healthcare, express dissent, and movement of the people in a state, are compromised,” says Tripti Jain, Researcher, Internet Democracy Project. 

Sundar Krishnan, Executive Director of the internet advocacy group, SLFC.in, says the Government’s stated reason that internet shutdown orders are given to stop the spreading of misinformation, can be counterproductive. “Shutting the internet results in an information blackout that can also create hysteria, panic and can result in even more discord. Internet shutdown cannot be a solution to a larger governance problem,” says Krishnan.

Economic repercussions

While there is no proven benefit of closing down the internet, there are serious economic repercussions.

Not surprisingly, the Government has not undertaken any evaluation to assess the economic impact of internet shutdowns. A report by the Brookings Institute adjudged India to have topped the list by incurring losses to the tune of $968 million in 2016 itself.

The Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations states that shutdowns in India are estimated to have cost the country over $3 billion between 2012 and 2017.

According to the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), the loss from internet shutdowns went up in 2019 to ₹24.5 million per hour. Another report by UK-based internet research firm Top10VPN showed that shutdowns in India in 2019 are estimated to have led to a loss of over $1.3 billion.

“With businesses adapting to the online business model, disruption of internet services for even 24 hours brings their businesses to a halt due to the breakdown of communication channels with their potential customers, payment gateway operators, delivery personnel and other such intermediaries involved,” says Krishnan.

State authorities have traditionally used provisions of Section 144, which deal with curfews and dismiss unlawful assemblies, to order internet shutdowns. But being an archaic law it is inadequate to deal with internet shutdowns as it leaves too much discretion in the hands of the authorities.

Even the procedural guidelines governing internet shutdowns issued under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, are executed by the Government machinery without any public oversight. Under this rule, if the Central government issues an order, it must come from the Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, and if a State issues an order, it should come from the Secretary to the State Government. However, it has been found that on many occasions, the powers to issue a shutdown have been delegated to the District Magistrate.

In fact, in September 2018, the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) had acknowledged the adverse impact of a rising number of internet shutdowns that State governments are ordering.

“As you are aware, the Government has embarked upon a programme to deliver services through mobile and internet apart from promoting cashless economy. In the absence of internet connectivity, access to various citizens is impacted. Further, neither banking transactions using credit and debit cards nor internet banking can be done, which leads to hardships to common citizens,” the DoT letter to various State governments had stated, adding that the provisions of the 2017 rule should not be violated when it comes to deciding who can issue orders to shut down the internet.

However, this letter seems to have been ignored as over 100 shutdowns have been ordered since then.

“Internet shutdown orders should not be given at the drop of a hat. The authorities need to evaluate the severity. We have written to the government to not allow junior-level officers to have the power to make such decisions. There has been no response from the government on the same,” says Rajan Mathews, Director General, COAI.

The Delhi Police and Assam Police did not respond to BusinessLine’s query on how internet shutdown helps in ensuring law and order.

A spokesperson for UP police said that, ”In situations of public emergency or the interest of public safety the ‘Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules, 2017’ is invoked on a case-to-case basis and action is taken as per the procedure.” However, since the matter is under consideration of the High Court at Allahabad, no further comment was given.

Vinoy K Choubey, Joint Commissioner, Law and Order, Mumbai Police, said the question of whether the decision to shut down the internet is authoritarian or democratic is theoretical.

“In certain extreme situations where rumours through WhatsApp and other social media start playing a disruptive role, it may become necessary to have internet shutdowns. If the normal channel of communication does not work and rumours start dominating the scene, then the police may have to resort to shutdowns so as to ensure situations don’t get out of hand,” says Choubey.

Gulshan Rai, former National Cyber Security Coordinator in the Prime Minister's Office, says, “There are a number of issues which are considered by the government while shutting the internet. These include technical structure of the internet infrastructure in that region and the law & order situation. These are complex issues and I am sure due care is taken and balance is made. I must say that such decisions are sensitive and impact the economy and the government is aware of the sensitivities.”

But experts argue that for immediate security-related concerns, deployment of the police force and running advisories on media is a better alternative than to arbitrarily shut down the internet.  “There exists no qualitative or quantitative evidence to show that internet shutdowns are effective tools to restore normalcy. In fact the internet itself can be used to resolve the problem. For example, the Government can have verified sources to spread legitimate information across various mediums stating areas that are safe/affected, the updated status of the situation, etc. The governments or law enforcement agencies can debunk fake news through the internet. The UK had a riot-like situation in 2011, but the then Prime Minister David Cameron decided to keep the internet intact. He said, ‘The idea of freedom cannot be contained behind bars, no matter how strong the lock’,” says Tripti Jain.

Meanwhile, Qureishi has moved to Bengaluru and access to the internet has breathed new life into him as an entrepreneur as he rolls out an e-tailing platform.

Published on January 14, 2020
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