Two United Nations human rights experts have called on India to restore internet and social media networks in Jammu and Kashmir, in a statement released today. While Internet access is working now in Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian government banned 22 social media sites/apps on 17th of April 2017, specifically: Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, YouTube (upload), Vine, Google+, QQ, WeChat, Qzone, Tumblr, Skype, Viber, Line, Snapchat, Pinterest, Telegram, Reddit, Snapfish, Xanga, Buzznet, Flickr and Baidu. To us, at MediaNama, it seemed that the site was apparently picked up from a random online search which led government officials to this page.
The UN statement comes at a time when the ban is already being challenged in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court: according to a report in the Hindu, the court has issued a notice to the government. The ban was issued as per the Indian Telegraph Act, and the petitioners challenging it have argued that while the Act isn’t being used to censor specific messages, but the medium of distribution itself: in other words, the ban is disportioncate.
In the statement, the two experts, David Kaye and Michael Forst, have said that “The scope of these restrictions has a significantly disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir, undermining the Government’s stated aim of preventing dissemination of information that could lead to violence”. Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, said that “The internet and telecommunications bans have the character of collective punishment, and fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression.” Forst said that “Denying such access disrupts the free exchange of ideas and the ability of individuals to connect with one another and associate peacefully on matters of shared concern.”
They noted that in 2016 the Human Rights Council, the central human rights body in the UN system, condemned such online disruptions and called upon States to avoid such shutdowns.
Kaye and Forst are a part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, and work on a voluntary basis. Special Procedures is “the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.”
Not an easy decision
To quote an attendee from our discussion on Internet Shutdowns late last year: “WhatsApp messages with unverified information which leads to mobs coming together, and usually law enforcement will say ‘what do I do in a situation where people are flooding WhatsApp with a minor incident of a collision on road between two people, which has become a communal incident? How do I deal with this information going around? People are coming out on the streets [so] we shut the Internet off.”
Kashmir has had the most number of Internet shutdowns – as many as 31 shutdowns in 2016, and 3 in 2017 – but as we learnt during a discussion we had held in Delhi, these are not easy decisions for local administrators. The spread of information (and misinformation) is so fast on services such as Whatsapp that local administrators are often helpless, and don’t know how to deal with it. They’re unable to trace the source of the content, because Whatsapp is end-to-end encrypted. The only option, they feel, is to pause the spread of information, give the administration some time to allow things to calm down, because they’re overwhelmed with dealing with addressing the situation while also trying to deal with the spread of the information that is causing the situation; one situation less to deal with helps. This is by no means a justification for blocking apps or content, but as someone said during our discussion, if you can give a district magistrate to impose an emergency and issue shoot on sight orders, you can give him/her the right to (temporarily) block Internet access.
Blocking apps or the entire Internet?
As we mentioned earlier, the option for the government is to block access to the entire Internet, or block specific apps. They have been criticised for blocking access to the Internet in its entirety. In comparison, blocking specific apps had seemed to be an easier way out. This way, two things happen: people move to messaging via apps that don’t have encryption, which makes it easier for the government to monitor them. Secondly, shutting down a handful of apps means that it’s no longer an “Internet shutdown”: the count will remain at 3 for Kashmir in 2017, and if implemented in other areas, could remain at 10 for the rest of the country throughout the year.