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Alternatives to Internet shutdowns

On 6th December 2016, MediaNama had held a discussion in Delhi, on issues related to Internet Shutdowns, with support from Facebook and STAR India . The following are notes based on these discussions. Read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

Internet shutdowns are often deployed without a full assessment of the damage that can be done, and are often executed within a legal framework that was created long before the Internet even existed. So what can authorities do instead of shutting down the Internet, that can still accomplish their goals of managing communal outbursts and limit the proliferation of misinformation and fake news?

Restricting impact: Ajay Kumar, a high-ranking Additional Secretary at the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), said: “There will always be a response to whatever action any government authority will take. And then you have to react to that. In a law in order situation you cannot always expect that just because you have done something, everyone will be quiet. You do a bandobast and the people will try to go around it if they want to do something. The issue is: if there is a new situation developing like FireChat [a peer-to-peer chat app that Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters used] or something, you have to then deal with that. If at a given point of time given a situation, the person responsible for that work has come to a conclusion based on his best information and understanding that this is the only way by which he can deal with this situation, he will thereafter [restrict] the Internet.” He added that solutions should have a limited scope so that people and areas unrelated to the incident triggering the shutdown are not affected. “The question is, when do you pull the trigger? Is it at the first appearance of an inflammatory message or is it when the situation starts to worsen? That’s an important question.”

Controlling without shutdowns: Clément Lesur, a trade officer at the French government’s international business wing, pointed to a solution that did not involve blocking the Internet in the first place. “Most of you may know that in the last few months, we had a few terrorist attacks. So, you may think that it’s a good idea to shut the Internet down during a terrorist attack. Actually the [French] government thought about it, because now the terrorists don’t send texts; they use WhatsApp because it’s encrypted. But actually instead of doing a shutdown, what they did is that they developed an app, because they knew that people were speaking to each other on WhatsApp, even the victims. Instead of shutting everything down, they tried to turn around and find a new way using the Internet to help people. So they developed an app with an alert button, so in order to tell the police in these areas, there are a lot of people pushing this button. Another example on Facebook: in France, Facebook updated the app in France to have a specific button to mark themselves safe. In France, the Internet is like the right to vote, we wouldn’t even think about shutting it down. The government and all the people are just trying to find ways to use the Internet to prevent these kinds of situations and help the people in the fastest way possible.”

Social media can be the solution, not just the problem: Deepali Liberhan, Facebook’s Public Policy manager for South Asia, spoke of Mumbai and Bangalore police’s use of social media to dispel rumours. “Particularly in the Kaveri River water dispute, the Bangalore police used texts, Twitter, and Facebook to send out information on emergency contacts to reassure people. There are certain localities where local police stations are creating WhatsApp groups with residential associations to be able to have a direct channel of communication. These are sporadic good cases, but it seems like they’re successful — there was no Internet shutdown in Bangalore [during the Kaveri dispute] and it was a pretty serious issue. What can we do as a community to collect more of these instances, to educate law enforcement and government and see how effective those are? I think that could be a really good alternative to shutting down the Internet.”

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Empowering local law enforcement so they can tackle tensions without shutting the Internet down: Vinay Kesari, a telecom lawyer at the Luthra & Luthra Law Associates, said: “I think building state capacity in order to make sure that the government and law enforcement all levels feel less compelled to use these kind of tools. By that I don’t mean that you need to increase surveillance or mass surveillance or anything of that sort — it’s also about investigation ability. Today if you look at police forces in India, their ability to investigate cyber-crime is highly inadequate, because we haven’t made the investments required to train people, give them the technical skills and equipment to do policing online. As a result, if someone knows that they cannot follow-up on something, if they cannot investigate something and hold someone responsible, and they know that it is still their responsibility to make sure that law and order is maintained, they would rather just stop the medium where the crime can be propagated in the first place. If you make them confident that if something goes wrong they can find the perpetrator, I think that there is a much lower chance that they will resort to using a very blunt instrument.”

– If miscreants know that consequences will come, they’ll be less likely to make trouble: Chirag Patnaik, VP Digital at Outlook Magazine said: “One thing that I’d like to say here is that — why are we debating on whether the whole Internet even needs to be shut down? It’s mainly because at some point, there’s no such thing as a completely anonymous medium. That includes WhatsApp. When I receive a message which is offensive, it came from someone, which further came from someone, and there’s a chain. If the state demonstrates that with alacrity it’s able to trace the origin and is able to prosecute enough of those people time and again, the question about having to shut down Internet for general populace will not arise, because then miscreants will be aware that they can’t just shoot off a message and have it go into the ether where they’re not responsible for it anymore. You need to demonstrate that you cannot just say something and get away with it, because we’re going to get back to you. Right now there are no consequences.

“If I ask this gentleman here from the government [Ajay Kumar, MeitY] how he traces these messages back, I don’t think they’ve been trained to that point. If you remember this whole 2000-rupee GPS thing that came up, which went on to TV [laughs] education clearly is overrated. Two days later, people did trace it back to a certain group of individuals, right? I’m saying that the state has infinitely more power than a news outlet. If you do this often enough, the miscreant knows that in a few days, someone will catch my neck. It is about enforcement, but till such a methodology along with the cooperation of the service provider is not available, I don’t think– what is the man on the street who is charged with the duty of safeguarding 200,000 people going to do? He’ll say ‘shut it down. I’ll worry about the consequences later’. That’s where service providers need to come in and say, ‘we’ll give you fast access to say we’ll trace where this route of communications came from’. All of that can be handled via warrants and established judicial precedents. Why is it that western societies are better policed and have less crime? Because they know consequences will catch up with them. You ask service providers to provide a chain that the local law enforcement official can say that ‘I need to get this done’. He should be able to track down that chain. You know the six degrees of separation thing, right? Within six phone calls, police will probably know who started that chain. Once ou have such a mechanism in place with the protection of a warrant system, I don’t see why it can’t be done.”

Written By

I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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