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Two days ago, on the 17th of December, Robert Singh Kshetrimayum, the District Magistrate of Imphal West district, and Ningthoujam Geoffrey, the District Magistrate of Imphal East district, both in Manipur, directed all telecom operators to shut down the access to the Internet. The reasons? According to Kshetrimayum, he “feared that spreading of rumours through mobile data by using social media like facebook, whatsapp, hike, messenger and viber etc., will increase social tension among the public.” The shut-down was justified in “order to maintain law and order”.

Geoffrey was far more explicit: There is an emergency. He said that rumours are being spread and disseminated through mobile data services, and “the situation does not allow identification of individual mobile data service providers or individual users of mobile data service providers who are indulging in dissemination of such unfounded rumours, and therefore it is therefore considered that prohibition of transmission of data in any form through mobile data services is likely to prevent loss of human life and property in the prevailing situation.”

The orders were issued under Section 144 of the Cr.P.C., and both orders explicitly mentioned that the shutdown is applicable “until further orders.”

But is there a need? Does it really help?

Shutting down access to communications (the ability to transmit and receive speech) is a suspension of fundamental rights, and is an instance of the government, through its representative, the District Magistrate, acknowledging their inability to maintain law and order without the suspension of a fundamental right.

That such an emergency has been declared 40 times in in the last two years alone, sometimes for something as frivolous as preventing students from cheating on an exam, and spreading rumours regarding demonetization, is a cause for concern. This should be done in the rarest of rare cases, with a clear and present danger identified (as indicated by the Supreme Court in the 66A judgment), because of the impact it has:

  • Internet shutdowns adversely impact citizens: The inability to communicate creates an environment of fear, rather than addresses it, as people lose the ability to communicate with friends and family, via email and messaging, and also lose access to information via news websites and social media. Students lose access to online registration mechanism for exams, people are unable to book travel, or pay digitally. This becomes all the more critcial with demonetization. They are also counterproductive in an emergency situation. From a participant in our #NAMA discussion on Internet Shutdowns: “Particularly, past experiences have shown that cutting of internet during public emergency can be counterproductive. During the Brussels Attack, police was forced to use WhatsApp because conventional communication systems were overwhelmed with traffic. In February, 2016 during the Jat agitation, intelligence agencies and local authorities exchanged information on WhatsApp apart from phone calls and SMSs.”
  • Internet shutdowns adversely impact businesses: Internet shutdowns are even more problematic, when you consider the push for India becoming a cashless economy. From an online business, at our #NAMA event on Internet shutdowns: ”An online business like ours is totally dependent on an reliable internet connection, 24/7. With platforms like AWS and Google for Business, most of the computing power has gone to the cloud. Hardly any company, and more so for startups, use in-house servers anymore, because the costs for setting that up are prohibitively expensive now.” Many businesses today are Internet only (such as Uber, FoodPanda, BookMyShow, Flipkart, GoIbibo), and an Internet shut-down ends up shutting down their entire business. With Smart Cities and the Internet of Things, with machines communicating with each other over the Internet, key infrastructure services will be linked via the Internet. Internet shutdowns can effectively cripple a city in the near future.
  • Internet Shutdowns adversely impact security operations: as Saikat Datta said at our event, messaging services such as Whatsapp provide a secure means of communication for maintaining law and order: “When the Pampore terrorist attacks took place, the security forces were chatting using WhatsApp for the rescue operations because was the only secure communication tool available to them (with end to end encryption) to plan out the operation. Even though India doesn’t have a Security Operations Centre for Cyber Incidents, many groups are congregating on Whatsapp, where information is flowing through rapidly, when a malicious attack or compromise is discovered.The benefits of keeping the Internet on in these kind of situations far outweighs any gains that you might get by shutting it down, and it actually impacts security operations.”

A declaration of emergency shouldn’t become the new normal, and it takes credibility away from situations where it is actually a need.

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What are the alternatives?

In our #NAMA event on Internet Shutdowns in Delhi, participants gave the following suggestions, in terms of alternative courses of action:

  • Counter speech from Law Enforcement Agencies: “Police forces of all states should be on Twitter and Facebook, and build communities on other platforms. They should proactively share information about the incident and issue clarifications. One solution is for the state to put out more information, and build trust with citizens. While there are challenges of fake news, Law Enforcement Agencies need to build their own credibility, so that people trust information from their official channels. As we saw in Chennai recently days back, a proactive approach by the government to stem the flow of rumour can nip any potential agitation in the bud. Also, with the advent of apps like WhatsApp, information about relief measures, helplines and requests for volunteers can be widely communicated very quickly. The PRO in each district should be actively involved in increasing the social media presence of the local government, so that these networks can be effectively leveraged during times of crisis.”
  • Social Media Monitoring: Parul Sharma of CCG at NLU Delhi mentioned that in case of Vadodara riots, provocative messages had been circulating for over two months, and it had built up. Someone from the government needs to counter the misinformation process, and not wait for a two month buildup. A consistent and a sustained response is more effective than an Internet shutdown, which can have a counterproductive effect, since there is already information spreading, and shutting down the Internet leaves you with no room for counter information. Saikat Datta mentioned that “You open source intelligence, the way Mumbai Police has done: by monitoring social media. You use open software tools, with constables and inspectors trained to look for certain keywords, looking at congregation of tweets and Facebook posts. At the opportune moment, when there are rumours, or they see a bump in tensions, they use their current deployments, so that forces can move in quickly and calm things down. They can do a sentiment analysis, look for threats, with big data analysis. They are using it to monitor ISIS propaganda. This has been replicated in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and Haryana is setting up one.”
  • Community Policing: Datta had added that, “if you start building communities online and start engaging with citizens” and “this is not very different from community policing.”
    “We’ve had excellent examples from Mumbai and Bangalore police. Most people forget the social aspect of social media. A lot of these issues such as shutting down the Internet will become irrelevant because you’ll find alternate and far more meaningful ways of engaging with people.” During the tension in Bangalore, the police shared emergency numbers, put out advisories, regularly addressed queries, and got inputs online. Deepali Liberham of Facebook, at our event, pointed out that “There are certain localities where the local police stations are creating WhatsApp groups with the Resident Welfare Associations.”
  • Punishing the guilty: Chirag, at our event, said that “There is no such thing as a completely anonymous medium. When I receive an offensive message, it came from somewhere. There is a chain. If the state demonstrates that it is able to trace and prosecute enough people, the question about having to shut down the Internet for the general population will not arise. Then miscreants will be aware that they’ll be held responsible. You need to demonstrate that you can say something and get away with it. In case of the Rs 2000 note and the GPS rumour, people did trace it back to a certain group of individuals. The state has infinitely more power than a news outlet, with the power of a warrant.”

After the emergency is lifted

The District Magistrate is possibly in the best position to judge whether an emergency needs to be declared or not, but are they really in the best position to judge whether this kind of an emergency, with the Internet access being restricted, is the best or only course of action? Subho Ray, President of the IAMAI, had pointed out that if we can trust a District Magistrate with the ability to give shoot on sight orders, we should trust them to be in a position to take a call on Internet shutdowns. Saikat Datta countered by pointing out that the District Magistrate understands the consequences of a shoot at sight order, and will think several times before issuing such an order. They will, however, not necessarily understand the impact of and alternatives to Internet Shutdowns.

Vinay Kesari added that there’s a need to build capacity among law enforcement agencies and District Magistrates regarding Internet shutdowns: “Governments will tend to use more blunt tools and block things with a more wide scope, if they feel they don’t have the ability to manage a medium”… “One of the reasons that certain agencies want to keep encryption standards low in India is because historically we haven’t invested in the infrastructure to do what their counterparts in other countries do. You give people more freedom when you’re more confident in your own capacity.”

So what should happen next?

  1. Firstly: An assessment of whether this was the best course of action, and an understanding alternatives considered, and whether any signals regarding an impending problem were ignored, counter-speech actions avoided? Merely preventing rumors is censorship.
  2. Secondly, Law Enforcement Agencies and local governments need to be educated about the impact of the shutdown, so they understand how it impacts citizens and businesses.
  3. Thirdly, a set of guidelines need to be created for assessing the circumstances under which Internet Shutdowns may be considered (and be treated on par with a declaration of emergency), in the rarest of rare cases.
  4. Fourth, even in the rarest of rare cases that a shutdown is considered, an attempt should be made to limit its impact: in terms of limiting the area of operation, and the services that are shut down. A unilateral shutdown of all access should not be allowed. All orders should be published online, and available for scrutiny, along-with justification. Transparency brings accountability.
  5. Fifth: a time limit needs to be established for a rare shutdown, depending on the severity of the situation. It can range from an hour to (for example) two days, but there needs to be justification with each extension, and the district magistrate should not have the power to shut down access beyond a limit. A DM should not have the power to shut down access to prevent people from cheating in exams or to prevent rumors about demonetization. There needs to be a clear and present danger criteria established.
  6. Sixth: Attempts must be made to trace the source of rumours, and perpetrators must be punished. Citizens must be educated against sharing information from unverified sources.
  7. Seven: protocols must be established from counter-speech narrative, and information campaigns from local law enforcement and the district magistrate.

Disclosure: Our #NAMA event on Internet Shutdowns was held with support from STAR India and Facebook.