In what may come as a rude shock to many, the Indian subcontinent experienced more Internet shutdowns in 2016 than any other country on the planet. Not only did these shutdowns cause inconvenience to the citizens of the second largest population in the world, but it also caused them losses to the tune of more than Rs. 6000 crores. Is this the Digital India that the Indian government keeps promoting?

In order to take the stock of the situation and prevent such internet shutdowns in the future, an organisation called Internet Freedom Foundation is floating a petition named Keep Us Online addressed to the Prime Minister of the country, Mr. Narendra Modi.

What are Internet Shutdowns?

The Centre for Communications Governance refers to a shutdown as an, “internet kill switch”. They are an absolute restriction placed on the use of internet services due to an order issued by a government body. It may be limited to a specific place and to specific period, time or number of days. Sometimes it can even extend indefinitely. In fact, an internet shutdown may also be just limited to mobile internet that you one uses on smartphones, or the wired broadband that usually connects a desktop - or both at the same time. Research from Digital Empowerment Foundation shows that Internet shutdowns have become a growing trend - in total numbers and across states in India.

What Are The Common Reasons For Restricting The Use Of The Internet?

The government bodies ordering the shutdowns have time and again claimed that one of the main reasons they turn to shutting down the internet is to respond to concerns about law and order. Some of the other common reasons for the shutdown include ensuring peace during a festival procession and preventing cheating in exams.

What Is The Problem?

Millions of Indian netizens are routinely cut off from the Internet on the whims of some government official, without any rules or oversight.

While the government bodies claim that the shutdowns are aimed at ensuring peace and law and order at the times of riots, there is little evidence present to support this claim. In fact, misinformation spreads like a wild fire in the absence of credible sources; the Internet, like any other mass media, has at various instances proved to be a powerful tool in restoring order. For instance, during the Kaveri riots in 2016, the Bengaluru police used Twitter and WhatsApp effectively to prevent panic and highlight police presence in volatile areas.

According to several activists, majority of times when the government orders internet shutdown, the real objective is to prevent journalists and citizens from sharing evidence of the misconduct or failure of government representatives. What is more appalling is the fact that the consumers are forced to pay the telcos for Internet access even during these repeated shutdowns.

The bottom line is, Internet shutdowns are unnecessary, harmful, and have no place in a democracy. India being the largest democracy in the world needs to address this issue urgently.

What is Keep Us Online?

Keep Us Online is a petition started by the Internet Freedom Foundation drawing the Indian Prime Minister's attention towards Internet shutdowns and the tremendous business loses it is causing. It is demanding the PM to take credible measures to stop this indiscriminate use of power at the hands of government bodies which also disrupts the vision of a Digital India.

The petition, which has also been copied to Manoj Sinha, Minister for Communications and Information Technology; Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister for Law and Justice and Electronics and Information Technology; Rajnath Singh, Minister for Home Affairs; and Ram Sewak Sharma, Chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India; demand the following measures to be taken:

  • Clearly condemn shutdowns: A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office condemning internet shutdowns and committing to ensuring all Indian users are not frustrated in being able to exercise their right to access to the Internet.

  • Prevent Section 144 from being used for shutdowns: An interministerial direction to all state governments and Indian Police Service officers expressly stating that using Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure for internet shutdowns is illegal.

  • Reform shutdown laws: Ensure that the Constitution and other laws (the Information Technology Act, Telegraph Act) are not unlawfully bypassed to impose internet shutdowns by starting a consultation process to frame specific updated rules under these laws to restrict the ordering of shutdowns.

Born out of the movement for net neutrality, the Internet Freedom Foundation works on a range of issues including net neutrality, free expression, privacy and innovation.

You can sign the Keep Us Online petition demanding an end to arbitrary shutdowns here.

[Image: huffpost]

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