Nevertheless, India has been on the watch list of human rights and internet freedom organizations to monitor the growing clout of government control over digital rights of citizens. In 2018, India was responsible for over 60 percent of the world’s documented internet shutdowns, justified as preventive or reactive action for public safety. In August 2019, the Indian government imposed a complete internet ban in the country’s conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir region to avoid violence after the revocation of the region’s autonomous status. This internet blackout lasted until early 2020, making it the longest shutdown by a democracy.
While there are no proven benefits to shutting down internet, the economic repercussions of such actions are serious and long-lasting. According to a report by an internet research firm, India suffered losses to the tune of over 1.3 billion U.S. dollars due to internet blackouts in 2019 alone. In fact in the six years between 2012 and 2017, the country had lost over three billion dollars owing to internet blackouts. At the same time, figures given by cellular operators in the country pin the economic losses in 2019 at around 24 million Indian rupees. There is no official government evaluation undertaken to assess the true economic impact of the shutdowns.
Going beyond the economic impact of internet suspension, its cost on every day human lives is undeniable. The 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 like healthcare, banking and communications, while also affecting small and local businesses, and public offices amongst other things. Moreover, since India does not consider access to internet a fundamental right, it becomes tricky to counter the legality of actions that restrict online activity.
Data privacy is another issue deeply intertwined with the freedom of internet in any given country. In just the first half of 2019, the Indian government issued over 22,000 user data access requests to Facebook, over 8,000 requests to Google and over a hundred to TikTok. According to Facebook, most of the user data requests were in response to anti-government or anti-state content. Other legal process requests were from law enforcement agencies and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to restrict content under the categories of hate speech, defamation and anti-religion. While government intervention is a necessary aspect to maintain cyber security, the line between safeguarding citizens versus increased government surveillance can become blurry. Case in point being the new Personal Data Protection Bill proposed in the Indian parliament that could make it legal for government entities to obtain personal data of citizens without prior consent and justification. There is no doubt that the present government has done noteworthy progress in digitalizing India and reigning in corporate interests in personal data. However, it remains to be seen whether digital privacy and control over personal data are upheld through constitutional channels as well.