India’s internet shutdowns hurt its most vulnerable, report says
India’s frequent and arbitrary internet shutdowns hurt its most impoverished, who depend on government social protection programmes, according to a new report from rights groups Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation.
Blocking internet access, especially on mobile phones and devices, impacts those who access programs such as a rural jobs guarantee and government-subsidised food grains, the 82-page report released on Wednesday said. Internet shutdowns also make it difficult for rural communities to conduct basic banking and pay utility bills.
“In the age of ‘Digital India,’ where the government has pushed to make the internet fundamental to every aspect of life, the authorities instead use internet shutdowns as a default policing measure,” said Jayshree Bajoria, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cutting off access to the internet should be the absolute last resort with safeguards to ensure people aren’t deprived of their livelihoods and basic rights.”
Indian officials often resort to such closures to stem protests, check communal violence, maintain law and order and even to prevent cheating in school and university exams.
They’ve used this tactic recently in the northeastern state of Manipur, where ethnic clashes have left at least 100 dead and another 37,000 languishing in refugee camps. India’s portion of the Himalayan region of Kashmir witnessed 550 days of internet closures from August 2019 to February 2021 after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked the special autonomous status of the country’s only Muslim majority region.
It was also used when tens of thousands of farmers protested against agricultural laws that Modi’s government was later forced to repeal, during nationwide demonstrations over a citizenship law that critics called discriminatory and to track down a separatist leader in Punjab.
In 2023, internet outages totaling 2,257 hours have so far cost India more than $249-million, according to a report from the UK-based digital privacy and security research group Top10VPN. Since 2018, India has shut down the internet more than any other country in the world, Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation said.
Most shutdowns involve only cutting off access to the internet on mobile phones, the report said. But this results in a near-total internet blackout because 96% of subscribers in India use their mobile devices to access the internet, while only 4% have access to fixed line internet, it added. DM