Limited Internet Shutdowns Raise Concerns

This approach suggests that selectively restricting internet access can help contain security threats while allowing beneficial use. However, the simplicity of this idea belies its complexities and potential dangers.

Srajan Girdonia
04 Aug 2023
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A Proliferation of Internet Shutdowns

Internet shutdowns, touted as measures to restore law and order, have become a concerning trend in recent times. India, a global leader in implementing such shutdowns, has seen both their prevalence and duration increase, prompting questions about their efficacy and the toll they take on citizens' rights and well-being.

The Appeal and Risks of Limited Internet Shutdowns

The concept of "limited internet shutdowns" has gained traction among government officials, lawmakers, and even the general public. This approach suggests that selectively restricting internet access can help contain security threats while allowing beneficial use. However, the simplicity of this idea belies its complexities and potential dangers.

Four primary methods are employed to execute "limited internet shutdowns": restricting access by medium (wired or wireless), limiting access by time, localizing shutdowns to specific geographic areas, and targeting specific websites or services. Each method presents unique challenges and implications for citizens' access to information and communication.

Socio-Economic Implications of Medium-based Restrictions

The first method, restricting internet access by medium, poses socio-economic concerns. With the majority of Indians relying on smartphones rather than wired connections, this approach inadvertently privileges the affluent minority who have access to wired infrastructure. This raises questions of fairness and equitable access to information.

Limiting shutdowns to certain hours or days or confining them to specific areas is another approach. 

However, these limitations can be easily extended or repeated, potentially creating prolonged periods of deprivation. Examples from Rajasthan show how such localized shutdowns can still impact a substantial number of citizens and disrupt daily life.

Website and Service Targeting

Blocking specific websites, social media platforms, or services like VPNs is gaining popularity. However, implementing this approach effectively is challenging. The technical analysis reveals that whitelisting approaches, which permit certain websites, can result in a substantial number of permitted sites being unusable. Moreover, this method requires invasive surveillance for enforcement, raising concerns about citizens' privacy.

Lack of Empirical Evidence and Growing Harms

Despite their widespread use, there is a distinct absence of empirical studies conducted by the Indian government or state authorities to assess the effectiveness of limited internet shutdowns. The standing committee on IT has expressed its concern over the lack of data regarding the impact of shutdowns on the economy, public emergencies, and safety. Meanwhile, mounting evidence points to the social and economic harms these shutdowns cause, potentially exacerbating issues rather than resolving them.

Research suggests that limited internet shutdowns targeting social media platforms hinder citizens' ability to share information, curbing peaceful protests and demands for state accountability. The inability to use these platforms for activism can inadvertently lead to more intense forms of protest, potentially leading to violence.

Institutional Expansion of Limited Internet Shutdowns

All four methods of limited internet shutdowns are currently undergoing institutional expansion. Regulatory bodies like TRAI are exploring the selective banning of internet applications, and courts are selectively restoring specific forms of access while blocking others. However, these expansions occur in the absence of concrete evidence supporting the benefits of such measures.

Reevaluating the Efficacy of Internet Shutdowns

In the face of mounting concerns and a lack of empirical evidence, it is crucial to reevaluate the faith placed in limited internet shutdowns as a curative measure. Blindly embracing these measures under the presumption of saving lives could lead to unintended dangers for millions of Indians. Balancing the need for security with the preservation of citizens' rights and well-being requires a comprehensive and evidence-based approach, rather than relying on faith-based policy decisions.

As India grapples with the implications of its frequent and prolonged internet shutdowns, a broader conversation about the role of digital communication in society is imperative. Striking the right balance between security concerns and citizens' rights is a complex challenge that demands a nuanced approach and the careful consideration of available evidence.