A report by UNESCO has revealed the threat to basic rights of a citizen in India, with increasing internet shutdowns in the country. The Clampdowns and Courage-South Asia Press Freedom Report 2017-18  counts at least 97 instances of internet shutdowns in South Asia, and a whopping 82 of these happened in India.

In comparison, India’s neighbour Pakistan had 17 instances, while Sri Lanka had one over the course of the year. Bangladesh and Afghanistan’s attempts to implement internet shutdowns were largely averted by timely public outcry, the UNESCO report states.

The report defines internet shutdowns as “any intentional disruption of the broadband or mobile internet or internet-based mobile apps, by an order of the authorities or threat of non-state party, to control communication or online content or slowing down the access to general public”.

These shutdown not only have huge economic costs, they also restrict access to vital information for citizen and impede the work of journalists. The UNESCO report says, “They pose a threat to human rights and block the public’s right to know; and have emerged as a significant tool of censorship by governments which are increasingly utilising shutdowns under the guise of security.”

Shutdowns in India

Kashmir was the hotbed of internet shutdown over the past year, which saw nearly half of the total shutdowns in India. In Darjeeling, a 45-day internet shutdown was ordered due to political demonstrations, protests and clashes by activists. Bihar’s Nawada also had a shutdown for 40 days.  Internet services were suspended for 12 days in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur, citing communal clashes. Of the six biggest shutdowns in South Asia last year, five were in India.

How shutdowns impact us

Internet shutdowns can have massive economic impacts. In April, a report by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) revealed that over 16,000 hours of internet shutdowns cost the economy a little over $3 billion over the last five years.

In December last year, Medianama held a discussion on internet shutdowns, where journalists revealed the difficulty they faced during the Darjeeling shutdown, and were unable to file stories. Young students lose contact with their families, and are left to fend for themselves.

Key services like healthcare and banks are also driven to a halt with internet shutdowns.

On the other hand, there remains no substantive data or evidence to prove that internet shutdowns can scale down violence, even as its abuse by the government increases. At the same time, “there is clear evidence that shutdowns deprive citizens’ access to basic, sometimes life-saving services at a time of crisis”.

“While there is a massive increase in numbers of users and growing access to the internet, this has been countered with ever-increasing curbs on freedom of expression in the digital space. Internet shutdowns are being flagged as a major issue in the region by the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) and freedom of expression is the casualty,” the UNESCO report concludes.