The Internet enables individuals to connect and communicate with each other while eroding physical boundaries. It provides a breakneck corridor to generate, broadcast and disseminates information within seconds to any distant place. It has dramatically transformed the contours of our personal, social, political and economic life.
The United Nations Human Rights Council, in a report on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression 2011, notes, “The Internet, as a medium by which the right to freedom of expression can be exercised, can only serve its purpose if States assume their commitment to developing effective policies to attain universal access to the internet.” In countries like Estonia, France and Costa Rica, access to the internet has been declared as a fundamental right.
In the judgement in Shirin R.K vs. State of Kerala, 2019, the Kerala High Court maintained that the right to access the internet is a fundamental right. The court further mentioned that access to internet is an inalienable part of the right to privacy and the right to education under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Unremitting and equal opportunity for participation in the digital territory must be pronounced as a prime and pressing necessity in a digital age.
Digital mediums such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube with minimal constraints emerged as alternative spaces for people to voice the actual concerns of the citizens. Further, reliance on such channels diminishes the authority of mediocre in mainstream media, masquerades as a champion of citizen’s rights.
Digital India initiative’s official website notes that to empower its citizens digitally, need to digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen must be fulfilled, further, under the nine pillars of Digital India, Universal Access to Mobile Connectivity, Internet Access Programme and Information for all are majorly highlighted. The mounting pace of internet shutdown nevertheless makes us ponder about the seriousness of the objective envisioned for Digital India.
The Government of India had launched it to advance a pan-digital character of India. On the contrary, the government deprives digital citizenry of accessing the internet. When a large part of the country geared up for Digital and online India, Kashmir was deliberately pushed to remain under continuous digital darkness, since the last 152 days.
Having discussed that, the question that springs then is why is the government blacking out internet across the country? In the name of ‘law and order’, it is an intentional move to neutralize all kinds of anti-establishment demonstrations and protests. The idea is not to let civil society and university students criticize, plan and assemble for peaceful protest/gathering/demonstration. Conversely, unceasing expansion of inclusive and diverse online demographies, integrated subalterns and marginalized communities to express, assert and represent themselves.
An internet shutdown is defined by Access Now (AN), which works for digital rights around the world as when someone—usually a government—intentionally disrupts the internet or mobile apps to control what people say or do. Shutdowns are also sometimes called “blackouts” or “kill switches”. According to a report published by AN, in the number of internet shutdowns by a country (Jan–July 2019), India tops the list with total 80.
The study of this report further indicates that every year, there is a continuous alarming rise in the internet shutdowns in India, as well as across the world, mainly in Asian and African regions. Though SFLC.in records that between 2013–2015 access to the internet has been blocked only nine times across four Indian states.
Financial aspects of the internet shutdown cannot be spurned. Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) New Delhi, conducted a study, prepared and released a report about the impact of the internet shutdown upon the Indian economy on 25 April 2018. The report maintains that during 2012 and 2017, the economy suffered from approximately $3.04 billion. The figure might reach $11 to 12 billion if we add the caused mislay from internet shutdown in 2018 and 2019.
Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill 2019, considers the necessity of the collective culture that helps to foster a free and fair digital economy. Considering the scale of data on internet shutdown in India, digital economy and objective of Digital India will merely result in another chimera for Indians.
Right after the anti-CAB/CAA protest flared up in Assam and other northeastern states, the internet was put to complete shut. In Assam, the internet was shut down for more than a week; however, due to the timely intervention from the Guwahati High Court internet services were restored. Internet services were shut down seven times due to the anti-CAA protest in dozens of districts of Uttar Pradesh including Lucknow, Ghaziabad, Prayagraj and Kanpur. In Delhi-NCR, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh internet were suspended in limited parts for less than a day on 19th, 20th and22nd December.
This is paving the way for digital poverty, discrimination and divide; surprisingly, there seems to be no abrupt, definitive move from the government to bridge this widening crack to justify the aims of Digital India.
According to the Internet Right (2011), an initiative of Digital Empowerment Foundation, development deficits and divided cannot be bridged unless information access and services are denied. Hence, restricting somebody from accessing the internet is a gross violation of human rights and undermines one’s right to information/access information. It’s undemocratic and unconstitutional in nature. The government can never reject the right to freedom and to access information exercised through the internet.
India must seriously deliberate to declare the internet as a fundamental right to nurture its soul and standing in the world.