In the Tamil Nadu districts of Thoothukudi, Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli, both mobile and broadband internet has been shut down for five days, the PTI reports. MediaNama was able to confirm with a BSNL representative that both broadband and mobile internet have been shut down, across both private operators as well as BSNL. “Not even fiber internet will work,” a BSNL representative said. It is highly unusual for any government-ordered internet shutdown to include mobile data as well as broadband. Even in Kashmir, state-owned BSNL broadband usually works during shutdowns. All internet communications in these three districts have effectively been short-circuited.
The government ordered this shutdown to stop “half truths and anti-social elements” in the aftermath of police shootings that resulted in the deaths of 13 people. The police were shooting protesters who were opposing the expansion of Sterlite’s copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi.
According to the Software Freedom Law Centre’s Internet shutdown tracker, this is Tamil Nadu’s first internet shutdown. A. Shankar, who runs the Tamil/English blog Savukku, cited sources as saying that not even ATMs and POS machines are working. The shutdown will last until Sunday.
Sources : All shops shut in Thoothukudi for the third day. No water or food available for the journalists who went there for reporting. Hundreds of foreign tourists in Kanyakumari, unable to use Credit cards or withdraw cash due to blocking of internet. Utter chaos prevailing.
— Savukku_Shankar (@savukku) May 24, 2018
Last year, the telecom department released rules to regulate “Temporary Suspension of Internet Services”, which gave authority to high-level bureaucrats within both Central and State governments to order internet shutdowns. The shutdown in Tamil Nadu was ordered under these rules, by Dr. Niranjan Mardi, a state government bureaucrat in Chennai.
Internet services suspended for five days in Thoothukudi, Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts. Order says “a public emergency has arisen” necessitating that internet services to be stopped to prevent spreading of “rumours with half truths”. #Thoothukudi #SterliteProtest pic.twitter.com/MWRLZJDz8e
— Anna Isaac (@anna_isaac) May 23, 2018
Just five months into 2018, there have been 54 internet shutdowns in India, according to SFLC’s tracker. And these are spread throughout the country — 88 shutdowns have been recorded in Jammu & Kashmir in the six years that the tracker has been running. The shutdowns are growing in number nationally, as police and bureaucrats see few options to control unrest other than shutting the internet down. Just two weeks ago, internet was shut down in Aurangabad following clashes. On the same day, in Uttarakhand, mobile internet was suspended after a young Dalit was killed.
Do shutdowns work?
Safeena Wani, a journalist in Kashmir, said at a MediaNama event, “Every day, there were rumours [when the internet was shut down]. 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.” Ajay Data, who runs an ISP, said that the only intent the government has when shutting the internet down is to stop rumours. If that doesn’t work, and if shutdowns are causing harm to businesses and people who rely on the internet, the purpose of shutdowns falls under question.
Researchers Rohini Lakshané and Chinmayi S.K. recently published a detailed report [PDF] on how unreliable mobile networks and internet shutdowns impact the lives of women, particularly entrepreneurs and activists. They concluded, based on interviews and a two-day workshop, that not only do shutdowns have a negative impact on the finances of small businesses and individuals, they also affect mental health and personal safety. Disaster relief and rescue activities are also heavily impacted without connectivity. The researchers recommended that the telecom department’s internet shutdown guidelines need to be reviewed based on the negative impact that they had found.