Internet shutdowns cause incalculable damage
On November 22, the Meghalaya government ordered the suspension of mobile data/internet services in seven districts for 48 hours. Following this, the ban on mobile internet services was extended twice, and the government shut down access to mobile internet for a week between 22 and 26 November.
When the Internet is shut down in this way, it is commonly referred to as an “Internet shutdown.” It is defined by a United Nations special rapporteur as “… measures taken by a government, or on behalf of a government, to intentionally disrupt access to, and the use of, information and communication systems online. ”
The internet shutdown has managed to negatively affect the lives of citizens. This was felt by various groups, including students, businesses and journalists. Several schools and colleges held exams during the shutdown, and the internet shutdown affected students’ ability to access educational resources via the internet. It was reported that concert workers were unable to work for the duration of the internet shutdown. Because contactless payment gateway machines rely on a mobile internet connection, the internet shutdown affected the ability to use digital payment systems and debit/credit cards for essentials such as fuel and food.
The state tried to justify the internet shutdown by citing the need to address law and order issues. The orders cited reasons including “an untoward incident” in West Jaintia Hills district and reports of “assault on civilians, arson and damage to public properties” in East Khasi Hills district and other districts of the state. At this point, it is critical to consider the effectiveness of internet shutdowns in addressing law and order issues, as seen in parts of Meghalaya. In its report on the impact of internet shutdowns, the Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology posed a similar question. The Standing Committee sought the Union government’s response on a link between Internet use and communal riots, but the Union government was “unable to provide. [a] answer.”. According to the report, the Union government did not conduct any study or research that would establish a link. This shows that authorities do not rely on empirical data when they claim that internet shutdowns effectively deal with law and order concerns. Research has shown that internet shutdowns exacerbate law and order issues.
According to a fact sheet from the Center for Internet and Society, which is part of a larger report on internet shutdowns, “internet shutdowns have never been “consistently linked to reduced levels of protest” and have been ineffective in controlling national security and peace-related concerns .In fact, such state action has often led to more violent, less orderly tactical shifts on the part of protesters”.
The paper mentioned in the preceding paragraph refers to research using examples of internet shutdowns from around the world, including Sri Lanka, Syria and Egypt. In Sri Lanka, the research found that internet outages facilitated the spread of “false and potentially harmful news”. This appears to have been proven correct in the context of the recent internet shutdown in parts of Meghalaya, as the shutdown prevented citizens from accessing accurate information about the state’s crisis. For example, during the internet shutdown, reports in the state’s electronic media said that a union of petrol transporters from the state of Assam, a major trading point to the state of Meghalaya, would stop transporting fuel to the state. The news spread quickly, and people panicked and lined up at Shillong’s gas stations. Meanwhile, the internet shutdown in effect at the time appears to have prevented a government announcement informing citizens that there was no fuel shortage.
As the preceding paragraphs make clear, shutdowns impact more than just our freedom of expression. As the 2021 #KeepItOn report by Access Now notes, “when we look at the resurgence of internet shutdowns in 2021, it’s the human impact that matters most. Network outages can serve to cover up human rights violations during crises, including war crimes and acts of genocide. They hinder humanitarian aid, and hinder journalism and the documentation of rights violations. They also leave people who have loved ones in these conflict zones in fear, unable to reach family and friends or bring them to safety.” Because of the impact of this shutdown, we need to ask our representatives if shutdown is an effective way to deal with law and order issues or any issue. We must continue to advocate for this issue and remind our representatives to remember to #KeepItOn and say no to internet shutdowns.
Jade Lyngdoh is currently at the National Law University, Jodhpur, where he was a Meta India Tech Scholar (2021-22). He has research interests in the intersection of technology law and policy and human rights
The views expressed here are personal.