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India signs G7 statement condemning “politically motivated internet shutdowns”

Internet Shutdown
Internet Shutdown

India has signed a Group of Seven (G7) statement condemning, among other things, “politically motivated internet shutdowns,” the Ministry of External Affairs announced. The “politically motivated” qualifier was not present in an earlier statement signed by just the G7 countries’ foreign ministers on May 5.

The “G7 and Guest Countries: 2021 Open Societies Statement” signed by India and other countries read, “As we build back better from the pandemic, we must continue to deliver a better quality of life for our people, with no one left behind. We are at a critical juncture, facing threats to freedom and democracy from rising authoritarianism, electoral interference, corruption, economic coercion, manipulation of information, including disinformation, online harms and cyber attacks, politically motivated internet shutdowns, human rights violations and abuses, terrorism and violent extremism.”

Apart from India, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, South Africa, the United States of America and the European Union also signed the statement.

The point of facing threats from cyber attacks and disinformation was also reiterated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who while participating in the Outreach Sessions of the G7 Summit on June 13 said that open societies are particularly vulnerable to disinformation and cyber-attacks, and stressed the need to ensure that cyberspace remains an avenue for advancing democratic values and not of subverting them.

India’s role in internet shutdowns a point of contention

The collective of countries had targeted the statement at autocracies, but India’s own prolific role in internet shutdowns was a point of contention. Most notably, the internet was shut down on August 5, 2019 in Kashmir, and lasted until February 5 this year; the restrictions, which were put in place after the abrogation of Section 370 of the constitution which gave Kashmir a special status, were not even lifted in the midst of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Wire reported that India fought initial drafts of the Open Societies Statement, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and foreign minister S Jaishankar implying in publicized remarks that fake news and cyberattacks had to be curbed, but stopped short of saying that these justified internet shutdowns.

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The final statement’s “politically motivated” qualifier seems to have been a satisfactory modification to obtain India’s signature. The abrogation of Section 370 was a politically popular move that the BJP has long promised, with almost half the respondents to an ABP C-Voter survey last month of 139,000 people calling it the government’s biggest accomplishment.

“We, the leaders of the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, South Africa, the United States of America and the European Union, reaffirm our shared belief in open societies, democratic values and multilateralism as foundations for dignity, opportunity and prosperity for all and for the responsible stewardship of our planet,” the statement opens. The statement affirmed “our respect for international rules and norms relating to,” among other items, “Freedom of expression, both online and offline, as a freedom that safeguards democracy and helps people live free from fear and oppression.”

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