Digital India dream vs. shutdowns internet

Faheem Haider

India wants to become a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy but it faces a big hurdle arbitrary internet shutdowns the Calcutta High court struck down the West Bengal government’s decision to suspend internet connectivity taken apparently to prevent ‘cheating in Class 10 exams’ because the government did not have the jurisdiction and its order lacked proper reasoning. In another case, the Kerala High Court said that access to the internet is a fundamental right. Despite such developments, internet shutdowns continue to be imposed in various parts of India on the flimsiest of grounds.

Seven years ago, the central government’s Digital India initiative acknowledged that expanded internet access was the key to attain digital inclusion. But India’s tryst with internet shutdowns tells a different story of gaps in internet access. Since 2015, India has witnessed 544 shutdowns. A quick analysis of the Software Law Freedom Centre’s (SFLC) tracker shows that regions which are thriving tech economies experienced fewer shutdowns than states that do not have well-developed digital economies.

Bengaluru, often called the Silicon Valley of India, has not experienced a single shutdown. New Delhi experienced four and Mumbai just one. In comparison, there were 13, 30, 78, and 321 shutdowns in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Jammu and Kashmir, respectively. Coincidentally, these regions also rank low on the NITI Aayog’s India Innovation Index 2020 signalling low knowledge diffusion.

One can argue that these shutdowns are temporary. But the consequences may not be unpredictable access to the internet dents investor confidence, causes disruptions in internet-based businesses and prevents users from relying on them. As a result, digital businesses remain concentrated in regions with stable internet availability, exacerbating the digital divide between the haves and have nots.

The challenges that emanate from arbitrary internet shutdowns are seen in other spheres of society too. Here, the inferences of an Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) study serve as a handy guide. The organisation estimated that 16,315 hours, or 130 days, of internet shutdown, cost the Indian economy approximately $3 billion from 2012 to 2017.

To understand the implications of this loss, let’s compare this data with the money the government requires to educate one underprivileged child in school. In 2020-21, the Delhi government spent $1,024 (about Rs. 78,000) per student, the highest by any state in the country. If the government were to spend $3 billion, India would be able to educate nearly 3 million (or 30 lakh) students. It’s safe to say then that internet shutdowns come at a great developmental cost.

Internet shutdowns reflect the government’s contradictory approach towards cyberspace. While it looks upon digitalisation as a panacea for last-mile delivery of service, it also uses the internet shutdowns as a weapon to control the flow of information for addressing governance challenges.

The government has prioritised the delivery of essential services through digital programmes like Aadhaar and wants to create an India Enterprise Architecture (IndEA) framework for making services digitally accessible to all citizens through the web, mobile and common service centres (CSCs). Contactless digital payment solutions such as e-RuPI are being promoted to create a cashless economy.

Although the success of such initiatives depends upon the presence of the internet, none of the policies call out sudden outages or insist upon its stable and continued availability. Law enforcement authorities impose shutdowns ostensibly to address public order issues. Such sudden and frequent internet shutdowns cause unexpected disruptions in the execution of welfare programmes.

India aspires to emulate and even surpass the digital growth trajectory of many developed countries. But fulfilling this aspiration will require an attitudinal shift in the way the country thinks and feels about the internet. Developed nations like Canada have declared access to the internet as an essential service for quality of life. In 2013, Germany’s highest court ruled that the internet is an essential part of life and customers have the right to compensation in case the service is interrupted. Finland declared access to the internet as legal right way back in 2010. If India is to achieve its dream of becoming a one trillion-dollar digital economy, access to the internet will have to be treated as a fundamental right, equivalent to the right to food and other basic necessities.

Effective governance is intertwined with the full realisation of people’s fundamental rights. Therefore, adverse impacts on fundamental rights lie at the heart of the governance challenges associated with internet shutdowns. As the Kerala High Court put it, right to internet access is a “part of right to education as well as right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution of India”. In July 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution condemning internet shutdowns. It recognises the internet as an enabler for the protection and enjoyment of human rights, especially freedom of expression and privacy. The resolution also affirms that the rights and freedoms people enjoy offline must also be respected and protected online.

The time has come for India to have a concerted policy that will minimise the use of internet shutdown as a law and order measure.

First, internet access should be declared a fundamental right. Universal access to the internet is not a distant dream anymore, in the ubiquitous presence of ISPs, several government-led programmes and even satellite-based initiatives like Starlink.

Second, it should be the government’s duty to ensure security is balanced against the rights to life, education and work. As the internet is an enabler of other fundamental rights, any restriction on it should be reasonable, proportionate and used as the last resort.

Third, the grounds for imposing shutdowns should be narrow and clear. In the US, the internet can be shut down under the Communications Decency Act only in case of war or threat of war, public peril, disaster or national emergency. In India, the law has several broad grounds to shut the internet down. These include the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order for preventing incitement to the commission of an office. The courts have maintained that these grounds can be invoked only if there are expedient and necessity conditions that may lead to an emergency.

Every citizen’s complaint against internet shutdowns cannot be resolved before the courts. Therefore, it is time that India revised its laws on internet restrictions keeping in mind the needs and aspirations of a digital society.