Digital India Needs Internet, not Internet Shutdowns

In 2020, the Supreme Court said that the internet is a Fundamental Right under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution
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On August 28th, internet services across 27 districts of Assam were restricted for over four hours for the second time in a month. It was done to prevent possible malpractices during a government-conducted written examination.

Restricting internet access is not new in India; according to the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), since 2012, there have been 683 internet shutdowns in India.

Jammu and Kashmir alone has witnessed 411 internet shutdowns since 2012, with the longest one lasting 552 days. This was in the months following the abrogation of Article 370 in the state.

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The stats are alarming to begin with, given India is the largest democracy in the world. While most of the time, the reasons cited for the internet ban has been national security, now, the government is banning the internet to stop candidates from cheating! 

Digital India needs its internet

India’s internet user base has grown exponentially in the past two decades and stood at 749 million in 2020. This figure is likely to reach 1.5 billion by 2040, according to Statista

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Internet users in India ( 2010-2040)

The Modi-led government’s push for digital India has ensured that citizens and businesses are largely dependent on the availability of the internet. Let’s take healthcare as an example. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, healthcare has received a huge digital boost. In the past two years alone, the healthtech sector saw significant investment. Online consultations and e-pharmacies have more takers than ever before. Patients are now reaching out to doctors through their smart devices and many in urban areas now order medicine online.

An internet shutdown even for a single day disrupts the delivery of essential services. Accessing healthcare through the internet becomes challenging in such scenarios and could prove to be catastrophic. Many patients with chronic diseases rely on medical delivery companies for their weekly or monthly supply of medicines. 

Similarly, many small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in India sell their products globally through the internet. In fact, many internet-based businesses have mushroomed in the country with the availability of cheap data services. According to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI)-Kantar, rural India is one of the major drivers for internet growth.

Internet shutdowns impact businesses severely, especially those selling their products and services online. According to a Statista report, in 2020, internet shutdown affected over ten million Indians, costing nearly USD3 billion. In 2021, internet shutdowns in India impacted nearly 17.2 million people. 

Number of affected users and economic cost of internet shutdowns in selected countries in 2021 (Source: Statista)

“The ease with which governments across the country are resorting to internet shutdowns is deeply worrying. The recent suspensions in Manipur and Assam are examples of the particular trend in the NorthEast region that needs to be addressed. These shutdowns hurt the basic rights to speech and livelihood, as well as access to information, healthcare, education etc and should therefore be taken up in a bipartisan manner,” Pradyut Bordoloi, Lok Sabha MP from Assam, said.

The UN, over the years, has strongly condemned internet shutdowns across the globe. “The dramatic real-life effects of shutdowns on the lives and human rights of millions of people are vastly underappreciated and deserve much greater attention from States, international organisations, businesses and civil society,” the UN said in a recent report.

Legal grounds

Legally, the government can shut down the internet in the country as per the Telegraph Act, 1885. But interestingly, the Act and the rules permit an internet shutdown if only there is a threat to public safety or in case of a public emergency, Gyan Tripathi, policy trainee at the Internet Freedom Foundation, told AIM.

“Smooth conduct of examinations does not fall under any of these categories, and any such order, on the face of it, is entirely illegal and without any basis in law. In fact, earlier this year, the West Bengal High Court held that suspending internet services to conduct examinations is illegal and disproportionate,” said Tripathi.

Further, on multiple occasions, it has been alleged that the government is using internet shutdown as a political tool. 

Shashi Tharoor, who was part of the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology, had said in 2021 that governments have resorted to internet shutdowns on grounds not so pressing and have been regularly using this as a tool for routine policing and administrative purposes. Reasons such as preventing cheating in exams or defusing local crime does not amount to large scale public safety concerns and certainly does not amount to a ‘public emergency’.

In 2020, the Supreme Court had said that indefinite internet shutdown by the state is not permissible under the Indian Constitution, and is an abuse of power. Moreover, the apex court noted that internet usage is a Fundamental Right under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.

Internet is a basic right 

There has been an ongoing debate regarding making the internet a human right, not only in India but across the world. In 2016, the United Nations declared the internet a catalyst for the enjoyment of human rights, especially the right to freedom of expression.

“Every Indian has the fundamental right to free expression and to carry on lawful trade under the Constitution. The existence of these fundamental constitutional rights over the medium of the internet was recognised and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2020. 

“Every suspension of internet services impacts the fundamental rights of citizens, and accordingly can only be done in limited and narrowly-defined circumstances, not at the whims and fancies for administrative convenience,” Tripathi said.

In 2019, the Kerala High Court had ruled that every citizen should have the right to access the internet as a part of the fundamental Right to Education as well as the Right to Privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution.

In 2020, Kerala became the first Indian state to declare the internet as a basic human right. 

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by Vijayalakshmi Anandan

The Deep Learning Curve is a technology-based podcast hosted by Vijayalakshmi Anandan - Video Presenter and Podcaster at Analytics India Magazine. This podcast is the narrator's journey of curiosity and discovery in the world of technology.

Pritam Bordoloi
I have a keen interest in creative writing and artificial intelligence. As a journalist, I deep dive into the world of technology and analyse how it’s restructuring business models and reshaping society.

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