Author: Torsha Sarkar
For four years running, India has held the notorious distinction of being the country with the greatest number of internet shutdowns, to data from the Software Freedom Law Center’s Shutdown tracker and global data from Access Now. It also has some of the longest-lasting imposed shutdowns in the world. These shutdowns have been carried out in a variety of contexts and rationales — from protests to incidents of violence, and even for the prevention of cheating in competitive exams. The geographic distribution and frequency of internet shutdowns have increased over the years.
In India, a predominant number of internet shutdowns target mobile internet services, which is the most common way people access the internet. As a result, in almost all cases of internet shutdown, a suspension order impacts a significant number of people in the affected terrain, widening the scope of harms done. In addition to suspension orders, the government has also been known to order slowing of internet speeds in certain parts of the country (“throttling”), as well as whitelisting only a select number of websites that residents of an affected area can use (“filtering”). Research conducted or maintained by the Software Freedom Law Center, Access Now and Internews’ OPTIMA project considers such instances to count as internet shutdowns for advocacy purposes, because the events cut access to major internet services to segments of a population.
India has a vibrant civil society and tech sector that have huge potential to collaborate on advocacy to challenge and, ideally, prevent internet shutdowns. Resistance to shutdowns, both via public advocacy and litigation, is vital and can be effective: Over the past few years, persistent civil society advocacy, both at domestic and international levels, have led to some gains. Earlier in 2022, the Kolkata High Court intervened and successfully reversed an ongoing shutdown order. A constitutional challenge to the legal framework that permits internet shutdowns is currently pending in front of the Guwahati High Court in north-eastern India. Additionally, the Supreme Court of India has admitted a petition challenging four states – Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and West Bengal — for ordering internet shutdowns to prevent cheating during state civil service exams. Such instances offer avenues for directed strategic advocacy efforts to demonstrate the impact of shutdowns on fundamental rights, the economy, and civic participation.
In addition to legal strategies, there is a need to work intensively in specific communities that are most affected by shutdowns to truly understand their digital needs and how they can participate actively in advocacy and internet-shutdown preparation and readiness.
Given the alarming number of internet shutdowns in India, Internews, in partnership with the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) and the Bachchao Project engaged in a collaborative and community-based needs assessment around civil society’s capacities and needs when it comes to confronting internet shutdowns. Drawing on a survey of civil society stakeholders as well as a series of four co-design workshops in Delhi, Guwahati, Hyderabad, and Jaipur, this report outlines how key communities views advocacy challenges related to internet shutdowns, perceptions on future internet shutdown risks, and the resources required to better prepare for and prevent shutdowns.
This in-depth needs assessment is part of a series of reports focusing on civil society needs in four distinct countries as it relates to preparing for and preventing internet shutdowns. These assessments sought to better understand the nuanced ways in which internet shutdowns occur in different countries, including:
- Patterns and trends in technical mechanisms used in specific places to shut down the internet;
- Political and social triggering events and government for shutting down the internet;
- Perceptions of the wider impact of shutdowns on economies and societies;
- Differential impacts that shutdowns have on specific vulnerable groups and marginalized populations;
- Laws and regulations that contribute to an enabling environment for internet shutdowns and inhibit advocacy related to censorship and internet shutdowns;
- Perceptions about future risk of internet shutdowns; and
- Perceptions about civil society preparedness and advocacy capacity in areas such as awareness-raising and stakeholder engagement, documentation of impact and network measurement, circumvention strategies and protection of vulnerable communities, and legal capacity to engage in litigation.
"Internet shutdowns have been increasingly used as a tool of oppression. We have seen that
be it Delhi, Rajasthan, Kashmir or Manipur marginalized communities are affected the most
by these shutdowns. There is either a loss of security or income or healthcare. Most
importantly shutdowns violate human rights by silencing voices. Hence there is a greater
necessity to prioritize these communities and strengthen the advocacy against shutdowns "
- Chinmayi SK, The Bachchao project
This research found that internet shutdowns have a profound and diverse impact on different communities throughout the country, and that many groups do not feel they have the technical, legal, and communications expertise to effectively prepare for or combat internet shutdowns.
This research is meant to not only inform global audiences about specific shutdown threats and civil society perceptions in these countries, but also to serve as a starting point to collaboratively develop national advocacy strategies and engage in deliberate outreach, training, and resource development to target identified challenges and needs in each country. The recommendations are based on collective reflections and determinations of key needs and strategic priorities of the communities consulted for this research and the wider Indian “Prepare & Prevent” network. These recommendations are currently being implemented through Internews’ OPTIMA project, and we encourage interested parties to contact the authors to participate in coalition activities and to support this work.