Internet blackouts as a political toolIn 2020, the country restricted access to the internet, affecting over ten million Indians, costing nearly three billion U.S. dollars. The worldwide impact from shutdowns was just over four billion dollars that year. The country also caused the longest shut down by a democracy lasting almost an entire year. This was the result of a government- imposed ban on internet and telecommunication services in the conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir region. According to the government, this was to avoid violence after the revocation of the region’s autonomous status.
Most shutdowns were implemented under claims to prevent misinformation and maintain law and order. On the contrary, research suggests that they usually occurred during dissent in the form of protests or police brutality in India. The latest of these were demonstrations following a proposal of three bills to corporatize farming, leading to the arrests of activists for their views on social media based on alleged sedition and domestic threats. In addition, the spread of misinformation only seems to be getting more widespread.
Challenges to digital freedomThe government’s push for digital India has ensured that common citizens’ personal and professional lives are largely dependent on the availability of internet technologies. Losing internet even for a day severely disrupts essential services in addition to affecting businesses of all sizes.
Another aspect of freedom on the internet is data privacy. Additionally, the Personal Data Protection Bill could make it legal for government entities to obtain personal data of citizens without prior consent and justification. Unsurprisingly, India was one of the leading requestors of content removal on major internet platforms including Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
Furthermore, the fact that India does not consider access to internet a fundamental right makes countering the legality of actions that restrict online activity challenging. While the right laws and policies to mitigate cyber crime and increase cyber security are essential, the lines of digital rights and freedom of speech online are still somewhat blurred, with censorship on internet content consistently increasing.