Apar Gupta is the Director of Internet Freedom Foundation. Primarily speaking in Hindi, he began his talk with the number of internet shutdowns that India has seen: 93 till last week, and still counting, with the ongoing CAA-NRC protests. “Bharat band hai,” he said next.
Highlighting how internet connectivity equals our connectivity with each other, and the world at large, I was reminded of a book in which it’s mentioned: “If you want to wage a war at a country, all you’ve to do is shut down its internet.” Internet shutdowns mean losing contact. He said that, with this, our lives come to a sudden halt. We’re not able to do anything. We’re nowhere.
“What’s internet?” he asked the audience. And then he presented a slide – with the internet, network and connection symbols – reading: Roti, Kapda, aur Makaan. (An old Hindi saying, that essentially means, the internet is our bread and butter and means to earn our livelihood.)
He then said, that having internet means “you exist,” else you don’t, because you’re authenticated via the internet. He was hinting at recent governmental schemes, that are collecting our data, in order to ensure that the general public is benefitted with those schemes. And, for that, the general public must be well-connected. Gupta mentioned, that as per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), “there are 600 million active internet connections.” It’s second to China.
His talk was mainly concerned about informing everyone, that access to the internet and its availability, is a fundamental right. He said aloud the first line of the Preamble to our Constitution: “We the People of India.” And then said, that this constitution of ours, ensures an extremely important fundamental right: Freedom of Speech and Expression, which is “not absolute,” he reminded the audience.
He went on to inform them that it’s “subject to reasonable restrictions.” And that those reasonable restrictions are well documented; as in, how those restrictions are identified and how they would be implemented.
For example, he mentioned Section 144 – even when imposing this law, in order to prevent an “illegal assembly” of people, there are certain regulations that the government needs to come up with, in defining how private property will be used.
However, the government’s imposing of this law and also internet shutdowns seem to be questionable. He took an example of the internet shutdown in Jodhpur. He said, “It was done in order to prevent cheating in examinations.” The audience laughed in response.
The government cannot begin surveillance without a legal framework, he further added. He also said that the government is shutting down the internet in an arbitrary manner, and that clearly, is used as a means to silence dissenting voices.
As per a report, that puts India first, in the number of internet shutdowns, it’s further shocking to hear the loss that the economy has to bear, as a result of these shutdowns: $2.4 billion!
The internet thas three major functions, Gupta explained; to inform people, ensure accountability by recording evidence and show society a mirror. How’re we going to ensure these functions?
Ending his talk with a powerful statement, he said: “Our smartphones are our constitutional weapons.” And we must use them, and the internet, in order to register our voices for or against the government. Switching off the internet means silencing dissenting voices in contemporary times. And we must resist this.