India recorded the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world for the fourth consecutive year, according to a recent report published by the digital rights advocacy group Access Now. Over 106 incidents of shutdowns were documented in India last year.
“Unfortunately, it’s possible that we are also missing some network disruptions that took place due to the lack of government transparency. The Indian government has been reluctant to create and maintain a centralized repository of data on the shutdowns authorities order across the country.” – Access Now report.
The report also pointed to the government’s failure to meet the requirements of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency & Public Safety) Rules, 2017 and the Supreme Court’s Anuradha Bhasin judgement that backs the rules. “The lack of a centralized repository continues to make it difficult for civil society and other actors to effectively monitor and document shutdowns, and some are likely to go unreported,” the report noted.
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Trends in internet blockades across the world
- Shutdowns are longer than ever: “Some governments are prolonging their interference, further exacerbating the devastating harm they have on people’s lives,” the report said. In Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, authorities have cut off the internet for over 2,026 days. It is followed by the Rakhine province in Myanmar, Kashmir and the Tigray region in Ethiopia, all of which have witnessed over 500 days of network outage.
- Increase in disruptions targeting 2G, 3G, and 4G: An increasing number of countries in Asia and Africa are turning to block mobile connectivity during anti-government protests. Over 18 governments initiated 37 protest-related shutdowns across the globe in 2021. On the ground, mobile connectivity is the primary means of communication among protestors and government critics, the report observed.
- Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and WhatsApp are facing the brunt: Social media is the biggest public platform for government critics. Consequently, at a time of political turmoil, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp are some of the first applications to be banned from access. Service-based disruptions happened in 22 countries throughout 2021 in Africa, Asia, and Europe, the report indicated.
- Network slowdowns: The report found 10 instances of network slowdown or throttling in 2021, five of these overlapped with another wider network shutdown. It alleged that Jordan, Russia, and Uganda governments are the leading throttlers, slowing down the internet simultaneously with other service restrictions.
- Disruptions target specific locations and populations: Since the “Keep it On” report was launched in 2017, governments target shutdowns to specific areas, regions and even specific individuals. In 2021, 118 out of the total 182 documented shutdowns impacted only locations within the same state or province. These shutdowns are allegedly longer and devastate the economy and daily life cycle of the blocked region.
Reasons behind internet shutdowns
- As a precaution against cheating in examinations: In the last couple of months, India has witnessed at least two internet shutdowns in Odisha and West Bengal as a method to curb cheating in joint examinations. Access Now has observed the same trend in Algeria, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Iran, Sudan and Syria. Algeria and Syria were identified as the lead perpetrators, using blackouts during all national examinations without exception, between 2016 and 2021.
- As a means to regain public order during coups, political turmoil and protests: Access Now calls out Myanmar, Sudan, Iran, Jordan and Pakistan as some of the worst offenders in using network disruptions to crack down on a disorderly public during internal conflicts. Notably, the Indian government cut off the internet during the farmers’ protest on January 26, 2021, following a spate of violence. The report notes that governments use network disruptions as a tool not only to thwart protests but also to hide the human rights violations during the armed forces’ crackdown on dissidents.
- Before, during, and after elections: Over the past five years, governments have continued to order internet disruptions, before, during, or just after an election. In 2021, the “Keep it On” coalition documented seven election-related internet shutdowns in six countries: Chad, the Republic of the Congo, Iran, Niger, Uganda, and Zambia. Although, it points out that this number is lower than their 2020, 2019 and 2018 reports which saw 10,12 and 12 election-related blackouts, respectively, across seven countries.
- Active conflict zones: Data from Access Now’s STOP initiative shows that warring factions across the globe are increasingly targeting telecommunications infrastructure during conflicts. These attacks result in internet shutdowns that deprive people of access to crucial information. External parties such as relief organisations and the media are unable to understand what is happening on the ground. Wartime damage can leave a country’s communications system crippled for years.
India cut off the internet 85 times in Jammu and Kashmir
With 399 internet shutdowns in the past decade, Jammu and Kashmir is the most blacked-out region. In the 2021 “Keep it On” report, it figures in first place with 85 documented shutdowns resulting in 551 days without internet. The paper further accuses the Indian government of being one of the 22 countries that had even cut off access to VPNs that usually enable people to mask their IP addresses from government agencies.
A year without internet access had crippled local e-commerce, brought online classes – a necessity in the post-pandemic world – to a grinding halt and even the medical sector lost its connectivity, resulting in a complete breakdown of inter-hospital referral and doctor-patient communication systems.
In 2020, around 1,200 doctors in Kashmir were connected through a WhatsApp group called the #SaveHeart initiative. The chat group effectively served as a virtual hospital for many Kashmiris with cardiac issues. When a heart attack patient was brought to any remote hospital in the valley, this group would connect the junior doctors to the senior specialists.
“A doctor would upload an ECG report of the patient and the doctors available at the moment would advise him,” a doctor who is part of the WhatsApp group had told MediaNama. “Since the first couple of hours are very crucial in this situation the advice from the senior doctors would help the juniors. A patient would otherwise lose the battle with life if he is referred to a tertiary hospital. Many people could have been saved had there been no internet shutdown.”
The most commonly cited reason behind network disruptions in Jammu and Kashmir is “public disorder”. Indian authorities declared an internet shutdown on the first day of 2021 itself, following intermittent disruptions in the following weeks to quell protests surrounding the upcoming Republic Day celebrations.
“But on January 1, there were already ongoing shutdowns taking place, not just in India but also in Ethiopia and Myanmar — each of which would see more shutdowns in the following months, in a context of fear, violence, and conflict,” the Access Now report notes.
Internet freedom is in jeopardy around the world
- Algeria: In June 2021, Algerian authorities shut down the internet as 7,31,000 students were sitting for their national exams. These disruptions have become a tradition since 2016. Millions of people in Algeria have suffered as a result. In 2020 alone, Access Now estimates Algeria lost around 388 million USD due to internet shutdowns.
- Cuba: According to Access Now’s documentation, Cuba was the only country in Latin America to cut internet access in 2021. Authorities responded to demands for government reform by shutting down the internet and blocking social media. In July 2021, amid protests to demand access to basic necessities and COVID-19 vaccines, the government imposed a complete blanket shutdown.
- Ethiopia: After conflict broke out between the Ethiopian Defence Forces and regional forces in Tigray, the report observed a series of internet blackouts impacting people in the region, extending from November 2020 through 2021 to the present day. Internet access has been restored in the neighbouring regions.
- Iran: In Iran, authorities responded to protests by cutting mobile internet access from February 24-28 in Sistan and Baluchistan. Access Now notes that the authorities reportedly shut down internet access to hide gross human rights violations According to media reports, a branch of the armed forces, opened fire at 10 civilians, including a child.
- Myanmar: On February 1, 2021, as the military seized control of Naypyidaw, Access Now reported a wave of internet shutdowns across Myanmar. The shutdowns affected both internet and voice connectivity, evolving into a curfew disruption, with authorities cutting the internet on a daily basis for over a month. Under the cover of the shutdowns, the military escalated violence against people protesting the coup.
G7, UN call for worldwide documentation of internet shutdowns
In May 2021, participants at the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ Meeting condemned “actions by states to intentionally disrupt their own populations’ access to, or dissemination of, information, knowledge and data online.” The heads of these states echoed these sentiments. A month later, United Nations Special Rapporteur Clément Voule, an expert on the rights to peaceful assembly, submitted a paper advocating an end to internet shutdowns, the world over. The paper offers a series of recommendations for state actors, companies, investors and international organisations to reverse internet shutdowns.
The UN Human Rights Council, in July 2021, adopted a new version of “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet” (A/HRC/47/16). It specifically called out network shutdowns and mandated an international report on “the trend in internet shutdowns, analyzing their causes, their legal implications and their impact on a range of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights.”
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