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Should the internet be a fundamental human right?

If you answered yes, isn’t it shocking that the govt can legally block your internet at anytime on a whim?

The conversation around digital rights has gained a lot of momentum in recent times. It was only last year that the entire furore over net neutrality in India took place. And over this one year alone, we have seen issues around censorship and freedom of expression in our online lives in India. Even if we might have advanced on some of these, a pretty interesting statistic has brought to our attention another online issue in our country – the access to the internet itself.

According to a survey by Brookings Institution, India had more internet blockages between July 2015 and June 2016, than any other country in the world – at par with Iraq at 22 blockages. That’s more than Syria (non-ISIS), Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh and Brazil – the next five countries in the list – combined. Some of these countries are under the lashes of long wars on terror and some have strict autocratic regimes that aren’t exactly big on freedom of expression. And talking about lashes, we’re actually higher than Saudi Arabia on the list.

Now, it wouldn’t be fair to portray this as an equal comparison. We do enjoy more freedom of expression online than, say, a Saudi Arabian citizen can. But to be honest, should that even be a justification for being denied access to the internet? On the other hand, the internet is also a source of a large amount of misinformation – some of which can be pretty dangerous for the uninformed. So what exactly does the internet mean to you – a law abiding citizen of the largest democracy in the world?

How bad is it?

India has had 31 internet blockages in 2016, according to research by the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC). That’s one for every 12 days. Now, don’t for a second assume that these blockages are nationwide – nothing even close to that has been done. However, these are region-based blanket blockages which essentially disable internet access from the network end. You can check out a very useful tracker at Internet Shutdowns. A place like Kashmir had its internet access blocked for months. In 2017, the count has already reached 10 and we just entered the second quarter.

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As the number of blockages increase, so do our losses from them

What makes it worse are the kind of reasons for which the access has been blocked on some occasions. For instance, mobile internet services were suspended for four hours across Gujarat on 28th February 2016 to prevent cheating on the Revenue Accountants Recruitment Exam. To be honest, most of the cases that account for such high numbers happened due to situations of unrest in said states – mostly due to communal clashes. But there are situations where the normalisation of Internet blockages has led to apparent over-regulation. Take the example of Kashmir – almost no Indian citizen who has a basic awareness of what’s going on in the country needs to be told that the state of Jammu and Kashmir has been in civil unrest. Between 2012 and 2016, Kashmir had 29 internet shutdowns for reasons such as the death anniversary of a rebel leader and a wrestling match at a disputed venue.

The legality

To start off, let us make it clear that internet blockages are perfectly legal in India. There is a provision in our constitution for the same. However, it is how it is done that makes it a bit confusing.

“The Indian IT act doesn’t specifically provide for internet blockages. The orders for internet shutdowns are issued under Section 144 of the CrPC” says Asheeta Regidi, cyber law expert, “This gives the judge the authority to take any measures needed for maintaining peace, such as in situations of unrest or riots. The judge has the power to take any measures required, at his discretion, for maintaining the peace. The problem with this is that as the internet is becoming more and more fundamental to daily lives, procedural safeguards are necessary. For example, section 69A of the IT Act, which provides for blocking of websites, has detailed procedures. Either it should be clarified that orders for internet blockages must be passed under Section 69A. Alternatively, a separate system with similar procedural safeguards should be introduced. Otherwise, this leaves scope for misuse and abuse. As seen with the blockage for the clerk exam.”

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Interactive map at http://dgit.in/NetShtdwn that tracks internet shutdowns over the years in India

Essentially, there are a couple of sections of the legal framework that affect internet access in India. Along with Section 144, another legal basis for disruption of internet services may be Section 5 (2) of the Telegraph Act 1885. That legislation was drafted before commercial radio was introduced, which has been modified over the years to grant the government greater power and control over the transmission of messages.

Why should you care

If you have opened the map mentioned earlier in the story, you might have noticed that the higher numbers of internet shutdowns are limited to a few states – states that have shown greater volatility towards political or communal unrest. You may or may not hail from these states or have anything to do with them. In case you’re the latter, you might wonder what all of this has got to do with you. There is one statistic that will change your opinion about this.

The same Brookings Institution study, that we mentioned earlier, goes on to highlight the economic cost of internet blockages. India, over the one year period, lost $968,080,702 due to blockages for 70 days. That’s about Rs. 10,000 lost on every second of blocked internet. If you had any doubts about the blockages having any adverse effect on our economy, that number should be enough to quell them.

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India portrays a greater tendency to block mobile internet services entirely, compared to other possible measures

According to the Internet Shutdown report from Centre for Internet and Society, India has a greater tendency to block mobile internet services entirely in situations that warrant control over communications. So, even during that clerical examination, if you wanted to transfer money on the go for any emergency, you couldn’t do so without access to a broadband connection. In comparison, countries like Brazil, Egypt and Uganda have taken a different approach by blocking specific services like Whatsapp, Telegram and certain social media apps – which definitely seems like a less restrictive approach.

In case you’re wondering “So what if mobile internet was blocked – people could still access it via desktops and other media right?” – then you’re grossly misinformed about internet usage in India. About 323 million people in India accessed the internet through their mobile phones in 2016, which corresponds to about 24-25 percent of the country’s population. So, one in every four Indians is affected by restrictions on mobile internet – which is a pretty high number to ignore. To put it in context, imagine a religious legislation ignoring the impact on every single minority religion in India! Not something that you will see people taking silently, right?

What can be done

First of all, you need to believe that there is something that needs to be done. This cannot be a time when we get used to internet blockages as something that just ‘happens’. Let’s face it, there are situations where you can justify such a blockage with public unrest in context. But it’s very important to understand what we are losing in the process. Putting a roadblock on the internet blocks all communication online – even legitimate and helpful ones.

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An example of how Bangalore Police carried out their efforts

During the Cauvery riots in Bangalore in September 2016, Bangalore Police put forward a stellar example of how technology can be used to help people during chaotic situations. Riots in different parts of the city over a Supreme Court order, combined with WhatsApp forwards that spread misinformation presented a so-called ‘ideal’ case for internet blockage. Instead, Bangalore Police took to Twitter to clarify any such instances of misinformation. They also ensured that their WhatsApp accounts replied to any queries regarding general safety around the city. Even though there was a lot of damage and chaos due to the riots, the scale was effectively brought down greatly because of access to a genuine source of information. In another example, during the Boston Bombings of 2013 – the internet became the only tool that could deal with the internet. Boston PD also took to social media within 10 minutes of the bombing to ensure that accurate updates overrule misinformation and the then-ongoing social media witch hunt was reigned in.

What can you do

Blocking the access to a communication medium hampers a lot of good outcomes in comparison to preventing misinformation. And more often than not, governments around the world have used internet blockages as a method to silence the voice of journalists, activists and voices of dissent. Thanks to the internet, there are quite a few things you can do to ensure that your internet access isn’t taken away.

First of all, you can check out and sign the petition from Keep Us Online, a campaign by the Internet Freedom Foundation. The petition is addressed to the Prime Minister of India and is also marked to relevant Ministers and government employees – with an aim of reaching 1,00,000 signatures to be sent.

Almost all the NGOs involved in this movement – AccessNow, Internet Freedom Foundation and more – do accept donations as well to keep the movement going and to get more people involved from a tech standpoint. And if you want to take things one step further and be directly involved in making sure that the internet is always within our reach, you can always join these organisations. Both AccessNow and Internet Freedom Foundation are accepting applications for volunteers, interns and even full-time positions.

The important thing here is for you to know that this isn’t something where you can just sit by and watch it unfold. ‘Cause if that’s what happens, the very internet that you take for granted might one day be yanked away from under your feet without warning.

This article was first published in May 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit e-magazine app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee