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How India, the World's Largest Democracy, Shuts Down the Internet

Colonial-era laws give Indian officials broad authority to order Internet shutdowns in the name of public order

4 min read
Kashmiri journalists hold laptops and a placard during a protest against the continuous ban on internet following the abrogation of Article 370 by the government of India on August 05.  Shot November 12, 2019
Kashmiri journalists, shown here in November, hold laptops and a placard during a protest against the government of India's ongoing Internet shutdown in the region.
Photo: Saqib Majeed/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Update 27 January 2020: News reports state that India's government has restored Internet access to the Kashmir region, though residents there can currently only browse 301 websites approved by the government and still cannot use social media. Mobile Internet is only available at very low speeds, according to a report from The Wire.

When government officials in India decided to shut down the Internet, software engineers working for an IT and data analytics firm lost half a day of work and fell behind in delivering a project for clients based in London. A hotel was unable to pay its employees or manage online bookings for tourists. A major hospital delayed staff salary payments and restricted its medical services to the outpatient and emergency departments.  

At a time when many concerns surround online censorship by authoritarian governments, India represents both the world’s largest democracy and the world leader in deploying Internet shutdowns as a political tool. Since August 2019, Indian officials have maintained the longest Internet blackout ever to occur in a democracy, in the disputed Kashmir region between India and Pakistan. Broad legal and regulatory government authority over Internet service providers has also enabled officials to frequently order short-term Internet shutdowns on a regional and even city district level.

“One of the reasons why India has so many shutdowns is that the institutional framework enables them,” says Jan Rydzak, a research analyst at Ranking Digital Rights, a nonprofit research institute based in Washington, D.C. “It is a framework where local officials have very broad discretion to order shutdowns.”

That institutional framework helped India implement more than 100 Internet shutdowns in 2019, according to the Internet Shutdown Tracker run by the Software Freedom Law Centre in New Delhi. A conservative estimate by the Top10VPN website found that the 2019 shutdowns alone cost India’s economy at least US $1.3 billion last year—not including the many cases where officials blacked out mobile communications within individual city districts for several hours.

Another report [PDF] by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations previously found that Internet shutdowns cost the national economy approximately $3 billion between 2012 to 2017. And it documented many examples of the economic impact felt by individual workers, students, businesses, and even government officials.

“Every single statistic you’re going to see on the total number of shutdowns by country shows that India just dwarfs every other country on the planet and most likely has had more shutdowns in the past five years than every other country on the planet [combined],” Rydzak says.

The Indian government’s powers represent “colonial vestiges” of laws first implemented during the British Empire’s rule over India, says Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital liberties nonprofit based in New Delhi, India. Such power stems in part from the Section 144 Criminal Procedure Code that empowers officials to prohibit large gatherings and block the Internet in specific geographic areas in the name of public order.

India’s central government also gets regulatory power over the Internet from the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, which originally gave British colonial officials authority over telegraph lines in India. This provided the basis for India’s government to implement Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules in 2017 that further formalized the way officials could issue orders for Internet shutdowns.

As a result, the government needs no advanced kill-switch for the nation’s Internet—local officials have the legal authority to compel individual telecom companies to manually shut down services. When ordering an Internet shutdown, officials typically write a letter and email it to all Internet service providers with regional offices in a specific geographic area, Gupta explains. The Internet service providers then block all incoming and outgoing data moving through cellphone towers and fiber-optic networks in that particular area.

More than 90 percent of India’s estimated 451 million active Internet users rely on their phones’ mobile data plans for online access, according to a report [PDF] by the Internet and Mobile Association of India. And India’s network of cellphone towers is dominated by just a handful of major telecom companies, including Reliance Jio, Vodafone Idea, and Bharti Airtel. That makes it fairly straightforward for officials to lean on these big telecom companies when ordering Internet shutdowns.

“It’s fairly easy because you don’t have a large multiplicity of backbone providers in India,” Gupta says.

In practice, India’s Internet shutdowns resemble a total communications blackout that also blocks phone calls and text messaging services alongside data connectivity. One recent example came from the government ordering the big telecoms to shut down voice and Internet services in the capital of New Delhi and other cities during protests over a new and controversial citizenship law in December.

More than 90 percent of India’s estimated 451 million active Internet users rely on their phones’ mobile data plans for online access.

The government usually justifies shutdowns as necessary to maintain public order and prevent violence during times of unrest. But Rydzak’s research has found that India’s Internet blackouts have not reduced levels of protest, and may have even worsened violence during such periods.

On a similar note, Gupta pointed out that protesters are more likely to use mobile communication and Internet access “to coordinate messages of safety, to organize peacefully, and to challenge the government within constitutional means,” as well as to record and share pictures and videos of any excessive violent responses by law enforcement.

Furthermore, government officials have not been very transparent about publishing the written legal orders they’re supposed to provide in the case of Internet shutdowns. The government has typically resisted making such orders public, Gupta says, even in response to lawyers’ requests made under India’s right to information law. That makes it tricky to understand and potentially challenge a given Internet shutdown order.

Without such orders, the public cannot address judicial forums and assert constitutional rights in challenges,” Gupta says. “It prevents people from having their day in court.”

That may now be changing. On 10 January, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the ongoing Internet shutdown and other suspensions of civil rights in Kashmir represent a violation of constitutional fundamental rights. Specifically, the Supreme Court of India pointed out that the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules do not allow for indefinite suspension of Internet services, says N. S. Nappinai, a Supreme Court of India lawyer and a cyber law expert.

The Supreme Court ruling requires Indian officials to review the Internet shutdown orders about every five to seven days and publish the orders to demonstrate their legal basis. Such requirements for greater transparency and “adherence to the settled tests of proportionality and due process” would also apply to future Internet shutdown orders, Nappinai explains. Still, the recent court decision did not order an immediate end to Kashmir’s ongoing Internet shutdown, leaving that decision up to the government.

“Considering the notoriety that India has acquired towards Internet shutdowns, the perception is that the Supreme Court stopped short of the needed threshold of protecting against future shutdowns,” Nappinai says. “Having said that, one could say that the Supreme Court judgment is still a good first step to a better future.” 

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