On 6th December 2017, MediaNama held a discussion in Delhi, on the Impact of Internet Shutdowns, with support from Facebook. The following is part 1 of notes based on the first of these discussions. Read part 2 here.

How does an internet shutdown happen, and why do government officials take that route?

Internet shutdowns in India generally tend to happen with little clear due process, or at least they did until the government issued rules on shutdowns earlier this year.

Aakash Hassan, a part of 101Reporters, an initiative to connect grassroots journalists to larger publications, explained: “There are three categories of Internet channels. One is prepaid mobile internet service, other is postpaid, and the next one is broadband and leased lines. Most of the people in Kashmir use prepaid internet services.” The prepaid mobile networks mostly provided in Kashmir by private operators like Airtel, are usually the first to go in any conflict. “Whenever anything happens, there’s any extraordinary situation, the first casualty is internet,” Hassan said. “Mostly prepaid mobile services are shut — except BSNL — BSNL is also shut down, but at the last stage. Broadband works mostly, they just reduce speed or briefly shut it down. Government use leased lines provided to offices, army uses a separate network which isn’t linked to private networks.

The operator said, ‘okay, I’ll shut it down’

But the actual process of getting an Internet provider to shut the Internet down borders on human right violations. Some journalists described how the police would order internet shutdowns and private operators would comply with speed even when the orders weren’t written.

Earlier this year, female students from the Banaras Hindu University campus in Varanasi took to the streets to demand action to protect harassment and molestation victims. The administration and the police, who couldn’t handle the protests, took an unusual crack at clamping down on the situation: unofficially ordering Reliance Jio to shut its network down in the region. Saurabh Sharma, a senior member of 101Reporters, said: “The district police chief asked Jio to shut the Internet down. The operator said ‘okay, I’ll shut internet down’. But then, an assistant official said, ‘even if you shut Jio down, the students will still make calls.’ So they ordered a complete network shutdown. This was unofficial. They had no order, nothing, but still, inside BHU, Jio was down.”

Since most students in BHU didn’t have a lot of money, Jio was their go-to carrier, Sharma explained. Shutting it down crippled communication among students, and also between them and the outside world.

Networks were similarly shut down after government-owned power company had a deadly industrial accident that resulted in tens of casualties, Saurabh said.

Left to right: Aakash Hassan, Safeena Wani, Kumar, and Saurabh Sharma

The quality just reduces

Another path that telecom operators take involves throttling, some journalists said.

Sharma from 101Reporters said, “All an operator needs to do is push a button” — at the urging of authorities — “and the signal strength goes down.” Though the number of bars is high, the quality of mobile internet and phone calls reduces severely.

Kumar, another journalist, explained, “The operators just lower the quality of cell signal. The physical infrastructure that exists in a cell tower is expensive and needs to be protected from destruction. As such, the police and operators have an unspoken understanding that the latter will shut the internet off when they’re told to. If you have an operator other than BSNL, your call will drop in less than 5 minutes.” 

BSNL generally survives internet shutdown orders for a longer duration mostly because many government officials have BSNL as their carrier. On top of that, the state-owned ISP has some internal due diligence to complete before it actually disables parts of its network at government request. Private operators, on the other hand, who face higher risk of seeing their license cancelled for non-compliance, shut their network down immediately, regardless of how valid the orders are, Kumar explained. “I asked them, you guys shut the internet down so quickly, what’s your process, and communication procedure? What do you tell people? They were like, “we just make a call”.”

Manish Adhikary (left), Teesta Herald

Do rumours stop?

“The only intent administrations have for shutting down the Internet is to stop rumours,” said Ajay Data, who has run an ISP in Rajasthan for seventeen years. He said: “The general explanation I got every time from the authorities is that they don’t want to have fake news or fake content flowing, leading to the agitation worsening. That’s the only intent they have. And there’s nothing more than that. When we understood that we asked, why do you want to stop leased lines and broadband? This time they understood.” When Data met a police commissioner he knew, an internet shutdown order that had come out that week was modified to be limited to just mobile networks. Later on, the commissioner told Data that he just wanted to block access to Facebook and WhatsApp during agitations. “Then why don’t you just ask us to block those specific applications,” Data recalled asking the commissioner. “Why shut down the entire internet?”

Ajay Data

But let’s step back and look at the intent of shutdowns: stopping rumours. Is that the only goal? And do shutdowns achieve that goal?

Manish Adhikary, who runs the Teesta Herald in Darjeeling, disagreed. Earlier this year, in the face of a growing separatist movement from Nepali-speaking Gorkhas in the region, the Darjeeling administration shut internet down in the region for a hundred days.

Adhikary explained: “Most people believed that the shutdown was used as a pressure tactic by the state government. Because there was an indefinite bandh by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, that bandh had popular support at least in the hills. The internet ban was the state government’s way of saying, okay, if you’re okay with the indefinite bandh, there’s not going to be any work done in offices, no cars on the roads, so what do you need internet for? Let us add this shutdown to your basket of miseries.”

An amusing outcome of the 100-day ban was that since the internet was down, a state government order to lift the shutdown from Kolkata didn’t reach Darjeeling on time, so the ban kept getting extended by the district administration.

As for rumours stopping, that is rarely the case too. Aakash Hassan from 101Reporters explained: “In Kashmir in July, a man was tied to an army jeep and used as a human shield. But the internet was shut, so the video didn’t come out. But later when the net was restored, the video surfaced and went viral. So the question is does it stop the rumours for which it was meant? It doesn’t. Actually, people collect the data and share it — just what happens is that it may be late by one or two days, nothing else.”

Other journalists concurred, citing instances where rumours only got amplified in the lack of communication. Safeena Wani, also a 101Reporters journalist, recalled, “Every day there were rumours. When I had to get treatment for a toothache, my family was thinking, “what if there’s a protest or stone-pelting on the way? Is she alright?” There were rumours like “there have been three deaths in this area, there’s stone pelting there”. Loudspeakers were used in Mohalla Masjids to assure everyone that everything was alright.”

Shutdowns are counterproductive, Hassan said. “Shutdowns lead to a situation where you go from one vicious cycle to another. If things go on, it’ll just add fire to the fuel.” Manish Adhikary explained why shutdowns are becoming more common very simply: “I think administrators use it to hide their lack of grip on the situation. If something goes wrong, people ask what you have done. Administrators say we banned the internet, which is the easiest thing to do.” The reason these shutdowns don’t happen in bigger cities, he said, could be explained in two words: administrative feudalism. Where power is concentrated, it retains its access to the internet.

“People don’t die on WhatsApp and Facebook,” Adhikary said. “They die on the streets.”

Quotes are edited lightly for clarity.