The Role Of Internet Shutdowns In Suppressing Dissent And Restricting Online Freedom – The world’s most populous democracy is now also a world leader in shutting down the Internet. India has imposed hundreds of internet blackouts in various parts of the country in recent years, including cutting off communications in the disputed state of Kashmir for six months.
The region of more than 12 million people has suffered greatly as a result, with unemployment rising and economic losses of more than $1 billion attributed to power outages. Internet speed caps and other restrictions remain in effect, rendering many online services virtually unusable and making the road to recovery even longer – especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Role Of Internet Shutdowns In Suppressing Dissent And Restricting Online Freedom
In the September/October issue of MIT Technology Review, journalist and author Sonia Falerio explains how India has become the internet shutdown capital of the world. This week on Deep Tech, he joins our editor-in-chief, Gideon Lichfield, to discuss why the backlash against the controversial Citizenship Act has led the government to clamp down on online communications.
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Gideon Lichfield: In August 2019, the Indian government imposed a complete communications blackout in the volatile, disputed region of Kashmir.
For six months, 12 million people had no Internet, no cable TV, and for some time no cell phones or even landlines. It was the longest internet blockade in the history of the democratic world. Even now, speed caps and other restrictions make many online services virtually unusable.
In recent years, India has imposed hundreds of internet blackouts in various parts of the country, sometimes for a few hours and sometimes for months. The government says they are needed to maintain peace, especially in areas such as Kashmir where there are regular outbreaks of violence.
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However, over time, shutdowns have become a popular tactic of the Indian government to quell any kind of political unrest. The world’s most populous democracy is also now a global leader in internet shutdowns – surpassing places like Iran, Venezuela and even China.
And these blackouts don’t just silence dissidents. They can destroy the local economy. And during a pandemic, they can cut people off from life-saving information.
Today I’m talking to journalist and writer Sonia Faleiro. Her story in our latest issue – the issue of techno-nationalism – explains why India has become the global shutdown capital and the price its citizens are paying.
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So Sonia in India is increasingly taking advantage of internet outages. And not only in Kashmir. In your story, you write about an event that happened in December last year in the capital of Delhi. What was the impetus for this closure?
Sonia Faleiro: So the lockdown in Delhi was to stop people from protesting. A large anti-government protest has been planned for December 19 at the Red Fort in Delhi, a historical monument from where the prime minister traditionally delivers a televised address to the nation on the occasion of Independence Day. The protest concerned the controversial citizenship law that the government planned to introduce.
CNN anchor: It’s another day of unrest in India over a controversial new citizenship law that critics say discriminates against Muslims. In some areas, police used water cannons and tear gas.
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Police blocked access roads and cut off mobile internet in front of the Red Fort, where the march was to begin.
Indian Protester: I am here because I consider this law – the Citizenship Amendment Act – to be completely unconstitutional, anti-people, arbitrary and contrary to the fundamental functions of the Indian Constitution.
Sonia Faleiro: The bill promised to expedite Indian citizenship for persecuted groups from neighboring countries. They included followers of all major South Asian religions. Hinduism, Christianity, Jainism, everything except Islam. This was a clearly Islamophobic move intended to further alienate Indian Muslims, and the protests were intended to draw attention to this.
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Sonia Faleiro: So there are about 200 million Muslims in India. This is the largest minority. India is a secular republic, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a Hindu nationalist. He was a lifelong member of a group called The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which bills itself as a voluntary organization dedicated to uplifting the poor. But it’s actually a paramilitary group. Modi has been a member of the group since he was eight years old.
The RSS’s views are influenced by European fascist movements, and the group’s leaders openly expressed admiration for Hitler. And I said something along the lines of, you know, Indians could “benefit from the example of the Nazis” who conveyed “racial pride at its highest” by cleansing Germany of Jews.
Sonia Faleiro: Basically what it means is; You know, a Muslim who cannot prove that he is an Indian citizen, which is very likely not only the case of Muslims but also many. Many Indians have no form of identification at all. They don’t even have birth certificates. So anyone who cannot prove that he is an Indian can apply for citizenship under the new citizenship law. Anyone who is a Christian, Hindu, Parsi or Jain, but Muslims cannot. Thus, 200 million Muslims are at risk of becoming stateless. What is happening is that the government is setting up detention camps all over the country. There are about 16 of them. What we know about some of these camps is that they are long-term. They have schools and hospitals, and there is absolutely no way for someone who has been pushed into one of these camps to leave. There is no appeal for them.
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Gideon Lichfield: So when people protested against the citizenship bill in Delhi in December, I think the government shut down the internet in quite large parts of the city. Normal?
Sonia Faleiro: It didn’t take long. In fact, it lasted for several hours, but it was very clearly done to prevent people from a certain part of Delhi, East Delhi, where the majority of the population is Muslim, from knowing what the law was going on and mobilizing. The government’s idea was that if they didn’t know where to go, they wouldn’t join the protest. And then the big numbers that were expected don’t add up.
Gideon Lichfield: The longest internet blackout in India was in Kashmir, lasting about six months and ending in January. But even since then, the internet speed has been reduced to 2G, which means very, very low speed. What is it like to be in Kashmir, where communications have been cut off so drastically during the pandemic?
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Sonia Faleiro: It was surreal, you know? My phone stopped working the moment I arrived in Srinagar. And that’s how I landed in Srinagar. I looked at the phone and it was like, you know, a paperweight. It was of no use to me because the Internet was turned off, but so were the phones and, as I later found out, the cable TV.
Sonia Faleiro: There was nothing. It was like being a black hole. There was no way to find out what was going on, even in the city, let alone in the rest of the country. So it was a dystopia, deeply disturbing. And, you know, the impact was very clear on people’s faces.
Sonia Faleiro: Kashmir had a solid economy. It is known to have had a thriving tourism industry and a thriving craft industry. This is a place famous for its beauty. That’s why people from all over the world come to Kashmir and ski there. At the time of the crash, the poverty rate was less than half the national average of 22%. The economy was stronger than in many Indian states.
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But of course, the power outage ruined everything because virtually every industry relies on the Internet. So in the first four months the economy suffered over 1 billion losses. And now about 500,000 people have lost their jobs.
India’s Supreme Court ordered the government to restore the Internet in Kashmir and ruled that the communications shutdown was unconstitutional.
Broadband internet access will be partially restored to institutions in the Kashmir Valley after over five months of power outage. The process, which takes place in stages, begins today. However, social networking sites – even news sites – will remain completely unavailable.
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Gideon Lichfield: So, for about six months now, Kashmiris have been living with the pandemic and still have very limited access to the internet. And what was it like with them?
Sonia Faleiro: So in January, when the courts ordered the government to lift the internet ban, the government responded by giving people access to, as you noted, 2G speeds. The other thing they did on top of that was basically create most of the firewall on the Internet. They gave people access to about 300 so-called websites. “white list”. You know, websites that they thought were safe for people to use.
The pandemic then appears to take root and spread in Kashmir, which, like many other Indian states, lacks a robust healthcare system. No one really knew how to protect themselves. No one even knew what it was, and the information was constantly changing.
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One of the doctors I spoke to in Srinagar calls himself a urologist
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