Statement against Internet Shutdowns in the North East

On August 6, 2019 we issued a statement with respect to the communication blockade in Jammu and Kashmir. We noted with concern how while it may be most severely impacted, the scope of this problem is much larger and felt nationally. Subsequently, we coordinated legal teams and organised challenges by two press bodies, the Foundation for Media Professionals and the Indian Journalists Union (click here) in the Supreme Court against the communication blockade.

In an increasingly digital society, an internet shutdown is a shutdown of essential facilities and conveniences such as online banking, ride hailing services, e-commerce platforms etc. It impacts young students, working professionals, freelancers, small and medium business owners and even senior citizens who today rely on it to reach their loved ones and for information gathering to keep themselves safe.

Today, we note with concern that internet shutdowns are in place in the States of Assam and Tripura. At the same time, the communication shutdown continues in Kashmir with pre-paid phone connections and internet remaining suspended. We have discovered through RTI responses from the State Government of Rajasthan (click here) and Bihar (click here) that the internet has been frequently suspended in those states too. While we had filed similar RTIs with all other State Governments, most of them refused to provide information to us. Such lack of transparency is worrying and these concerns have been echoed even in courts and Parliament. The available orders suggest that internet access is often suspended by unauthorized government officials in a casual manner without adequate application of mind.

As to consistent objections which are made on the grounds of such internet shutdowns being precautionary measures to save lives, the evidence so far is inconclusive. As noted in a recent India specific empirical study by Jan Rydzak from Stanford’s Global Digital Policy Incubator, “findings imply that information blackouts compel participants in collective action in India to substitute non-violent tactics for violent ones that are less reliant on effective communication and coordination. While they may sometimes disrupt structured and non-violent protest, this effect is highly inconsistent” (click here). Hence, while the benefits are uncertain, the harm to free speech and the ability of people to conduct their lives digitally is certain.

We urge the Central Government to consider issuing an advisory on the frequent use of these internet disruptions which are today not only imperilling the ambitious goals of the Digital India programme but are causing incredible hardship to millions across India. We commit to our community and supporters that we will continue to take strategic action to contest internet shutdowns. The Internet Freedom Foundation will fight for the digital rights of all people in India — whether they may be in Kashmir, Assam, Tripura, Rajasthan or Bihar.

We are with you.

Rachita Taneja, Trustee
On behalf of the Staff and Board of Trustees
Internet Freedom Foundation