Modern Day Book Burning a.k.a Internet Shutdowns

The internet has become an indispensable element in our society for all the obvious reasons. For the majority of users, not a single day goes by where we don’t ‘need’ the internet and the lack of a reliable and fast connection can feel paralyzing.

An internet shutdown refers to the total or effective disruption of access to the internet, whether broadband or mobile based, in a region by a government direction to that effect. Internet shutdowns can either be explicit or implicit. Explicit means that the state suspends total access to the internet and implicit is when the state intentionally slows down the speed of the internet rendering it “effectively unusable”. Unfortunately for us, India has become the leading country to have the most number of internet shutdowns. We have had it more than any other democracy.

The Indian government has shut down the internet 374 times since 2012. Over 100 clear-cut shutdowns have been recorded in 2018 and 2019 each. Now, the duration of a shutdown is under the discretion of the government. The time period may be stated prior to its implementation or it can last as long as per the authorities convenience. The most important point which has to be noted is that shutdowns disrupt access to all the people in a region.

The state of Jammu and Kashmir has been in this internet limbo for over a year now when an internet shutdown had been imposed on the 4th of August 2019. It was only in March 2020 that the shutdown was relieved ”with the restoration of 2G mobile internet on verified SIM cards.” in Kashmir. Now lets delve into the crux of the matter. When and why did it start?

On the 5th of august 2019, the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was abrogated by the government of India, i.e., Article 370 had been scrapped off. This move by the government was met with revulsion and on the pretext of maintaining public order, the access to internet and cellular data was cut off, thereby leaving the inhabitants deprived of this very basic need.

The economy of any region/country takes a major dip when there is an internet shutdown. In 2019, access to internet in India was blocked for nearly 4000 hours, resulting in a loss of $1.3 billion which is approximately 9024 crore. In Kashmir specifically, there has been an economic loss of 40,000 crore and it has left more then 5 lakh people jobless. As of August 2020, there have been 55 shutdowns in India and 46 of them had taken place in Jammu and Kashmir whilst 38 of them were in Kashmir alone.

Two women in headscarves hold up signs reading ″100 DAYS NO INTERNET″
Photo Credits :Tauseef
Kashmiri journalists protest the shutdown in October 2019.

The shutdown has had numerous and grave repercussions in Kashmir. Initially the citizens in Kashmir couldn’t pay their television bills and the students faced interruptions while giving exams. This shutdown in the middle of a pandemic has had even more severe ramifications. For example, the health care department: the number of hospital visits have dropped by upto 38 percent. The isolated patients who have been relying on video calls with doctors have become helpless. The medical diagnostics equipment which need routine software updates have ceased to work and the supply link for pharmaceuticals (which are ordered and paid for online) has been cut off. It has also incapacitated people from visiting hospitals and contacting the nearest clinics to check whether the doctors were there or not.

The professional scenario has been equally worse. The losses incurred by various business men during the first five months has been approximately Rs. 178.78 billion with online business startups having to bear the brunt of it. Kashmiri startups specializing in the export of Kashmiri goods like pashmina shawls and and other delicacies and handicraft items have suffered a serious blow due to the lack of connectivity with mainland India and international clients. This has led to high level of unemployment and economic uncertainty.

As far as education goes, students are facing difficulties participating in online classes, making submissions as well as filling of online forms. People are unable to video call their friends or family, attend online classes and webinars and conferences. The restoration of 2G mobile internet does not seem to have alleviated the plight of the people because of its slow speed .

The shutdown has also thwarted the functioning of organizations and NGO’s who are dependent on the internet for operating efficiently. For example Kashmir Women’s collective, an organization which helps women (victims of domestic or sexual abuse) by providing legal alternatives and other forms of relief mainly operated through Facebook, has seen all of their efforts came into a standstill, leaving women who wish to seek their help in a serious predicament.

According to the central government, the motive of the shutdown is to prevent the spread of misinformation and maintain peace and order. A seemingly regressive move which has hampered communications in all forms, created unemployment and disenfranchised students en masse.

The shut down is a major step back for our country and as rightly said by the JKCSS (Jammu Kashmir coalition of civil society) the communications blockade is a ”digital apartheid” and a form of collective punishment unleashed by the Indian government to the people.”

Restrictions during CAA-NRC riots

On the 11th of December, 2019 the Parliament of India passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. By further amending the Citizenship Act 1955, the government introduced provisions to granted fast tracked Indian Citizenship to a certain segment of religious minorities (Hindu, Sikh, Christians, Buddhist, Jain and Parsis) who had fled persecution from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before December 2014. Muslims were excluded from the bill.

The bill faced flak for the overt marginalisation of Muslims and discrimination made solely on the basis of religion. One of the major factors of concern over this bill was for the Muslims facing persecution in their own countries such as the Rohingyas in Myanmar and the Ahmadis in Pakistan. They also feared that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) would be used as a tool to leave the Muslims void of Indian citizenship. This triggered nation wide protests beginning in Assam and spreading all over India.

Protesters hold placards as they listen to speakers in Shaheen Bagh area in Delhi. (PTI Photo)
Protestors In Delhi, Photo credit : AFP

The government imposed certain restrictions in light of the protests, for example, internet services were suspended in five districts of Bengal to prevent “rumour mongering and the circulation of fake news”. Not only in West Bengal, but internet services were also suspended in Mangaluru city and the Dakshina Kannada district for 48 hours. The shutdown was imposed according to the section 5(2) of the Indian telegraph act and read with temporary suspension of Telecom Services rules 2017.

Areas surrounding Jamia Milia Islamia, parts of South and East Delhi and Aligarh (Uttar Pradesh) were also included in this suspension. Even text messaging services of all telecom operators were suspended in Lucknow and some parts of Uttar Pradesh. Sambhal, Ghaziabad, Mau, Azamgarh and the districts of Bareilley were among the cities who went through the suspension.

Faheema Shirin v.State of Kerala

Facts of the case :

Faheema Shirin a 3rd semester B.A student of Sree Narayan Guru college Chelannur was expelled from her hostel for not adhering to the restrictions imposed on the use of mobile phones. The girls hostel was barred from using laptops and phones between 6pm – 10 pm. She, along with few of her mates had protested to the restriction as it was hindering their learning process.

Issue:

She claimed that the use of mobile phones violated her fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1) a of the constitution. As she was an English literature student, the mobile phone was her primary resource for study. In wake of this issue she filed a petition in the Kerala high court.

Judgement:

In September 2019, in a landmark judgement, the Kerala High Court stated that the right to have access to the internet is a fundamental right to education as well as the right to privacy under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The judgement was made by Justice P.V. Asha.

The court stated that when the human rights council of the united nations has found that the right to access to internet is a fundamental freedom and a tool to ensure right to education, a rule or instruction which impairs the said right of the students cannot be permitted to stand in the eye of the law“.

Citing the Puttaswamy case, the court held the right to privacy is considered to be an intrinsic part of right to life and personal liberty and dignity. The hostel authorities are required to impose certain rules and regulations for discipline but the enforcement of discipline should not block the ways and means of students to acquire knowledge.

Therefore, Kerala became the first Indian state to declare internet a basic human right.

Watch the below video for a better understanding of the case.

International practices on right to internet.

The internet forms an essential part of our personal and professional life. The internet society had conducted a survey in August 2012, among more than 10,000 internet users from 20 countries. Out of which 83% of the users firmly felt that the right to internet access should be legalised as a basic human right, whilst 13 percent of them were of the opposite opinion.

Tim Berners Lee – the inventor of the world wide web claimed that the right to internet shall be considered as a basic human right. According to him, the right to access water is a basic human right since people cannot live without water similarly web access should be considered a basic human right. He went on to say that the people who cannot access the web shall fall behind the ones can.

There have been a few countries who have regulated the right to internet access as a citizens basic right. The Constitution of Finland has been the first one to encompass this right. the Finnish government officially confirmed ”broadband access” as a basic human right in 2009. It went on to become the first country in the world to confirm through a legislation the right to internet access as a basic human right.

Estonia, France, Greece ,Costa Rica and Spain are among the countries to have included in its law the right to internet access. The United States, China and the U.K. have not expressly laid down the right to internet access into legislation but they have made specific provisions to promote the penetration of internet. The British government had made a promise that from 2012 the speed of the broadband internet access will be upto 2 megabits per second in every household. Like wise the U.S federal communications commission has promised that all the Americans would be able to enjoy the internet services.

It is deeply disappointing that India is the internet shutdown capital of the world. During the Covid-19 pandemic, India saw a 4 point decline in its internet freedom score. Twitter and Netflix were pressurised to remove content that was censorious about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, since it was stripped of its semi autonomous state and divided into two union territories – Jammu and Kasmhir and Ladakh.

Siddhi Shetty
Siddhi Shetty
I am a second year law student studying at Rizvi law college. I would describe myself as an extremely hardworking person who has an avid interest in the field of law. My parents have always tried to instill a sense of duty into me towards the society and I truly believe that the society will grow if and only if we as individuals come together and contribute something towards it.

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