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“Access Now Report: India’s Unmatched Streak in Internet Shutdowns”

by Digital Bull
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In an era where digital connectivity is almost as vital as electricity and water, internet shutdowns can have devastating effects on societies. According to the latest report by Access Now, India has topped the global rankings for internet shutdowns for the sixth consecutive year, surpassing countries like Pakistan and Iran. This distinction, however, is far from enviable.

An internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of internet services, making them inaccessible or unusable for a specific population or location. These shutdowns can be total blackouts, where all internet services are cut off, or partial, affecting only certain services or regions.

Governments often justify internet shutdowns on grounds of maintaining public safety and national security, particularly during times of civil unrest, protests, or communal violence. However, these measures frequently spark debates over their necessity and proportionality.

Access Now, an organization advocating for digital rights, publishes annual reports to highlight the state of internet shutdowns globally. The report aims to raise awareness and push for policies that protect internet freedom.

The latest report indicates that India imposed the highest number of internet shutdowns in 2023, accounting for over 60% of all documented cases worldwide. This marks the sixth year in a row that India has led this unfortunate ranking.

Comparing the data with previous years, the frequency of shutdowns in India shows a consistent pattern, with no significant decrease despite growing domestic and international criticism.

India’s tryst with internet shutdowns began in earnest around 2012, coinciding with the rise of social media’s influence in political and social mobilizations. The frequency has only increased, particularly in regions like Jammu and Kashmir.

Noteworthy examples include the prolonged shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir following the revocation of Article 370 in 2019 and multiple shutdowns during the farmer protests in 2020-2021. These instances highlight the government’s reliance on shutdowns during contentious times.

The Indian government often cites security concerns, the prevention of misinformation, and the need to maintain public order as primary reasons for implementing shutdowns. Critics argue these reasons are frequently used to stifle dissent and control the narrative.

Pakistan, while also prone to internet shutdowns, typically resorts to such measures during elections, religious gatherings, and in conflict-prone regions. However, the scale and frequency are less compared to India.

Iran is notorious for its stringent internet control, often shutting down the internet during protests and uprisings. The shutdowns are usually total blackouts, aimed at cutting off all forms of digital communication.

While all three countries use shutdowns as a tool for control, India’s higher frequency and more widespread implementation set it apart. The reasons for shutdowns in India are often linked to civil unrest, whereas in Iran, they are more related to political dissent, and in Pakistan, they are often tied to security during specific events.

Internet shutdowns have significant economic repercussions. Businesses reliant on digital operations face severe disruptions, leading to financial losses. Studies estimate that India loses billions of dollars annually due to these shutdowns.

On a social level, internet shutdowns isolate communities, restrict access to information, and impede communication. Politically, they are seen as tools to suppress dissent and control the flow of information, undermining democratic principles.

Shutting down the internet infringes on the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. It also hampers access to essential services and information, posing a threat to human rights.

In India, internet shutdowns are primarily governed by the Indian Telegraph Act, of 1885, and the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, of 2017. These laws grant the government broad powers to suspend internet services.

Pakistan uses the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, of 1996, while Iran’s legal framework is opaque, with shutdowns often enforced by decree from top political authorities.

Internationally, internet shutdowns are increasingly viewed as violations of human rights. Organizations like the United Nations have called for an end to such practices, emphasizing the need for a free and open internet.

Public opinion in India is divided. While some support shutdowns for security reasons, many criticize them for their impact on daily life and freedom of expression. Protests against shutdowns have been growing, particularly among younger, tech-savvy populations.

International bodies and foreign governments have frequently condemned India’s internet shutdowns. Reports from organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International highlight the negative implications of these actions on democracy and human rights.

Civil society organizations in India and abroad play a crucial role in advocating against internet shutdowns. Groups like Access Now, Internet Freedom Foundation, and others actively campaign for policy changes and greater accountability.

During shutdowns, individuals often turn to tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and proxy servers to bypass restrictions and maintain access to the internet.

VPNs encrypt internet traffic, allowing users to bypass local restrictions. Other technologies, such as mesh networks, can also provide alternative means of communication.

While these technologies can help, they are not foolproof. Governments can block VPNs, and using such tools may carry legal risks. Additionally, they often require technical knowledge, making them inaccessible to the average user.

Access Now is a global nonprofit that advocates for digital rights and works to protect the open internet. Their annual report on internet shutdowns is a crucial resource for understanding the global landscape of internet freedom.

Access Now conducts various campaigns to highlight the importance of internet freedom and push back against unjust shutdowns. Their efforts include lobbying, public awareness campaigns, and legal interventions.

The Access Now report is vital in documenting internet shutdowns, providing data and analysis that can inform policy decisions and advocacy efforts. It serves as a benchmark for understanding the scope and impact of shutdowns worldwide.

Given current trends, it is likely that India will continue to experience frequent internet shutdowns. However, increasing domestic and international pressure could lead to policy reforms and more restrained use of such measures.

Reforms might include stricter guidelines for imposing shutdowns, greater transparency, and more accountability. Judicial oversight and legislative reforms could also play a role in curbing arbitrary shutdowns.

International advocacy and diplomatic pressure can significantly influence India’s approach to internet shutdowns. Collaboration between global and local advocacy groups can amplify the call for internet freedom.

India’s position as the global leader in internet shutdowns is a cause for concern. While security and public order are legitimate concerns, the frequent and widespread use of shutdowns raises serious questions about their impact on democracy, human rights, and economic well-being. Moving forward, India must balance security needs with the fundamental rights of its citizens.

An internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of internet services, making them inaccessible or unusable for a specific population or location, often implemented by governments.

India often implements internet shutdowns to maintain public order and security, especially during times of civil unrest and protests. However, this practice has been widely criticized for its impact on freedom of expression and economic activities.

Internet shutdowns can cause significant economic losses by disrupting business operations, hindering digital transactions, and affecting various sectors dependent on the Internet.

During an internet shutdown, people can use tools like VPNs, proxy servers, and offline communication methods. Staying informed through traditional media and community networks is also important.

The international community can help by condemning unnecessary shutdowns, supporting digital rights organizations, and applying diplomatic pressure on countries that frequently resort to such measures.

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