On Tuesday, the Rajasthan government shut mobile internet down in the district of Bundi. The shutdown came after some Hindu mobsters reportedly tried to pray at a disputed religious site, violating a peace committee’s past orders. The ban was in effect till 6am on Wednesday morning, the Times of India reported.
In December, Sharat Kaviraj, a Superintendent of Police in Rajasthan, explained the logic behind internet shutdowns to MediaNama over phone at an open house discussion on the impact of internet shutdowns. Ajay Data, who runs an ISP in Rajasthan, called Kaviraj an “IT supercop”. Edited excerpts of Kaviraj’s remarks follow.
Painful decision with no alternatives
Shutting the internet down is a very painful decision for anyone to take. Because as you understand, all civil servants are essentially committed to serving people, and we are also aware that internet availability is a fundamental right in some countries. Everyone in government understands that internet is critical for modern living today. So the decision to shut the internet down is always very difficult. In the recent past, this discretion has been exercised quite frequently, and one of the major decisions was to shut it down in Jaipur. Before that, it was shut down in other districts during times of unrest.
Jaipur was hit by riots. So this decision is a difficult one, and what I would say is that this system is forced upon us by the fact that a lot of people deliberately, and sometimes without understanding the consequences, forward all kinds of messages which are able to create a situation which is explosive. And as you understand, this can lead to a situation where there is loss of life and property, and citizens have to be protected from that. I understand that it is a difficult decision to make, and it causes a lot of hardship. But it is taken in the light of no other alternative.
Alternatives of dealing with misinformation like counter-speech is the first approach the police tries. We send area-specific SMSes, we try to give press coverage to the whole scenario… From our side, we have loudspeakers and announcements too. Counter-speech definitely happens. Even when the internet is off, rumours happen through things like telephone calls. So countering it is part of our strategy.
How misinformation spreads
For example, there was a case where Anandpal [Singh], a dreaded criminal of Rajasthan was shot dead in an encounter, and the community to which he belonged was told that this was a fake encounter, and photographs of his house which were taken before the encounter were shown to the public saying “this is where the encounter site is, and there’s no blood here” which was not the case. Similarly there were videos of a girl who was burnt alive and people said that she’s a Rajasthani girl who has been burnt alive. Actually the video was from Guatemala. So those kind of things are shown and it’s impossible to stop them without stopping the internet itself. I think strengthening counter-speech more effectively is the only solution.
And the second solution is something like Facebook, who had a whole campaign against false news. People need to be educated and not believe everything they see, particularly in different times — making the society more mature is the only answer.
It ultimately depends on the maturity of the audience. In a law & order situation, the mob has already lost its maturity and not acting in a rational way.
If we could identify individual messages that are causing trouble, we could block just those instead of shutting the internet down entirely.