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There have been 20 internet shutdowns in 2017: Human Rights Watch

Advocacy group Human Rights Watch said that Indian authorities should cease arbitrary restrictions of the country’s Internet and telecommunications networks and added that state governments have imposed 20  shutdowns in 2017. “Shutdowns in response to campaigns on social media and mobile mass messaging applications spreading false and even incendiary information have frequently been disproportionate,” the group said.

Typically, mobile Internet bans are enforced under the Section 144 of the CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure) where it targets unlawful assembly. Section 144 of the CrPC can usually be invoked by a district magistrate or the collector. To curb incidents of riots or mobs, magistrates or district collectors cut mobile Internet to stop the spread of rumours on social media.

The number of Internet blocks has increased dramatically with the Supreme Court’s ruling which upheld the districts and states’ right to ban mobile Internet services for maintaining law and order in February last year.

Pressure is mounting from advocacy groups on the responses from state governments. The Centre for Communication Governance at NLU Delhi counts more than 40 instances in two years where the internet was suspended for emergencies. In May, two United Nations human rights experts had 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.

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.”

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Jammu and Kashmir internet shutdowns

Due to unrest in the Kashmir Valley, there have been a large number of Internet shutdowns in the region. In the months of April, May and June, there have been four mobile Internet shutdowns in different parts of the country. The latest was on May 29 in Jammu and Kashmir after militant Sabzar Bhat was killed in an encounter. Internet was cut for a week in this instance. Internet services were cut twice in April. Internet services were cut on April 18 following student protests across universities and colleges. The incident was sparked as some students in Pulwama Degree College were beaten by government forces.  on April 8, both broadband and mobile Internet services were suspended on the eve of the by-polls to the Srinagar parliamentary seat.

Tricky situation

An attendee from MediaNama’s discussion on Internet Shutdowns in December 2016 said that WhatsApp messages with unverified information leads to mobs coming together. He added that 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.

However, the Human Rights Watch pointed to that authorities can use social media to discourage violence and restore public order. In September 2016, when riots broke out in Bengaluru city, a social media team of the police used Twitter to send out regular announcements on the law and order situation, counter rumors, and answer queries from concerned citizens.

As we pointed out earlier: technology will not solve social and administrative problems, as its usage to stifle criticism and free speech will only exacerbate them. Shutting off social networking apps and free speech will, at best, delay the expression of dissent.

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Contributes to fear

Internet shutdowns will not help as people will be anxious in the aftermath of a violent citizen. Indeed, Subho Ray, the president of industry association IAMAI, pointed to an example in the 1993 blasts in Mumbai where shutting down communications was counter productive to restore calm.  “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?” Ray said.

At the same event, Tanmay Shankar, a business head at Jagran New Media, also said that essential functions of news organizations, like dispelling rumours that can cause tensions to flare, are also disabled by Internet shutdowns.

Security forces use the same technology

Meanwhile, Saikat Datta, Scroll.in’s consulting editor said that security forces themselves are becoming more dependent for communications from services like WhatsApp .  “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,” he said. “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,” he added.

Clément Lesur, a trade officer at the French government’s international business wing, also echoed similar sentiments. ““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,” he said.

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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 herePart 2 here and Part 3 here

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