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.

There were over 27 Internet shutdowns in 2016. Often, the same sequence of events plays out — communal unrest flares up, sometimes fueled by fake news, and the authorities see messages proliferating online, sometimes on messaging apps like WhatsApp, as a prime factor. Consequently, the Internet is shut down for a while.

But what effect do these shutdowns have on the businesses and individuals who are often dependent on Internet access? Subho Ray, the president of industry association IAMAI, pointed out that most people in the discussion were never personally affected by shutdowns. “[Internet shutdowns] have never happened in Delhi, and most of us are from Delhi. It has never happened in Bombay either. So none of us are directly involved.” … “Right after the 1993 bomb blast in Bombay — that was my first visit to the city — and my two young brothers-in-law were in school. So I had to go pick them up from school soon after landing. … We came back home, after picking the kids up, and the first thing we noticed was that the phones were off. You could not call anyone or receive any calls. And that was the time when I wondered, is it not counterproductive to shut the [phone lines] down when a disaster has struck? Since then, I have wondered, is there a policy or a principle for why the government does this? Now with phone calls and data, and in an era where data is more important than voice calls, the problem has not been solved, and we don’t have an answer as to why it’s done. Is it part of a calculated policy? Does it have an impact?”

Impact on people and businesses

Tanmay Shankar, a business head at Jagran New Media, said it does have an impact. “[Shutdowns are] a loss for companies like us, because we totally depend upon websites. In today’s world– apart from social media channels, websites are one of the biggest communication [channels] to send news quickly to audiences. So when you say Internet is shut down, it’s a two-way problem for both the audience and the business. For the audience, they are not able to get live news, and as businesses, our entire monetary part is totally dependent on ads and campaigns, which again, get shut down.” He added that essential functions of news organizations, like dispelling rumours that can cause tensions to flare, are also disabled by Internet shutdowns.

Pranay Jivrajka from Ola also said that shutdowns impact them. He said, “Fundamentally, I think we all are discussing is the reason why it’s done, be it data shutdown, or voice shutdown, which was in 1993, is to restrict, or to channelize communication. And that might impact a couple of lives but, or save a couple of lives, but it comes with a cost.” He later spoke on the impact shutdowns have on platforms like Ola that depend almost entirely on the Internet. “So we have a strong dependence on the Internet, no two things about it,” but he said that Ola had found ways around it.

“We’ve faced this in Gujarat in the longest time, otherwise you have intermittent issues on the Internet. The way we have dealt with it is to create solutions around it rather than asking ourselves as to why this happens and how we can stop it. More often than not, if there’s poor data connectivity then the app optimizes on 2G, and if even that’s not working then it works on SMS and so does the driver app. SMS is the fallback. We still haven’t figured out what to do if even SMS is not working for let’s say a region, but for an individual there’s an offline channel where a consumer can book a ride, but it won’t run through unless the driver’s phone at least has an SMS — it needs an SMS for the business to run.”

But do shutdowns really work?

The impact of shutdowns on everyday life is one thing, but are they successful at calming things down? They can be counterproductive sometimes, as Scroll.in’s consulting editor Saikat Datta pointed out. “Let’s look at what’s been happening in Kashmir; for months, they shut off Internet communication, they shut off the Internet. And suddenly people are left without any means of communication which they had got accustomed to. But that has not prevented people from still congregating and taking out processions and protest marches,” he said.

He added, “Look at the security forces have become dependent on the same means of communication for communicating. I will give you one example and it is a very stunning example: when the Pampore terrorist attack took place the special forces who were put into the hostage rescue operations were actually chatting with each other on WhatsApp because that’s the only secure communications tool that they had to talk to each other and plan out the rest of the operation. And this is increasingly happening within the security architecture. Another example I’ll give you is: even though India doesn’t have a security operations center for cyber-incidents, many groups of people, whether corporate or other critical sectors are congregating on WhatsApp today, for the absence of any other secure channel, with rapid flow of information. Especially when a major attack or compromise is discovered. The benefits of keeping the Internet on in these cases exceedingly outweighs any gains that you might get by shutting it down. And it’s actually impacting security ops in a big way.”