Do the social, constitutional and economic costs of internet shutdowns, on a rise in the country of late, outweigh its efficacy as a law and order tool? This emerged as the central theme during Thursday’s IEThinc discussion — Is internet shutdown the new order for law and order? — as a panel comprising government functionaries, domain experts and lawyers debated the implications of such clampdowns.
Ranchi District Magistrate Rai Mahimapat Ray, who had to enforce one such shutdown for 12 hours in Bokaro in 2016, said taking such decisions are not easy for civil servants like him. He explained how the enforcement helped save lives and restore normalcy in the region. “Another district, which was facing a similar situation, did not resort to a shutdown. They ended up having the curfew in place for three days, and it also claimed three lives,” Ray said.
Such decisions cannot always be taken keeping economic considerations in mind. “A decision to ban mobile internet is not an off the cuff decision,” he added.
Lawyer Apar Gupta, co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, said the social cost, coupled with deprivation of fundamental rights that an internet shutdown entails, go beyond the monetary aspects. “Such measures disrupt life completely…on the pretext of security such heavy-handed measures are not proper,” he said, listing out the flipsides which range from people not being able to carry out necessary online transactions or their inability to send words of comfort to their families. Gupta stressed that the reasons behind such clampdowns by the authorities need to be clearly spelt out so as to avoid formalising a system where there is a “break from the rule of law”.
“From the creation of the rules to their implementation, there is secrecy. And secrecy is the hallmark of an autocracy, not a democracy,” Gupta added.
Rajat Kathuria, Director and Chief Executive of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), said the opportunity costs associated with such measures will only increase with time. “Internet has become so fundamental to our lives that the economic impact is only going to be higher in the future,” he said.
Delivering a presentation before the discussion, Deeptiman Tiwary, Senior Assistant Editor, The Indian Express shared certain related figures, including the fact that since 2012, the country has witnessed at least 254 internet shutdowns, of which 107 took place in 2018 alone. He quoted the data from multiple independent sources including the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC). He said the economic cost of internet shutdowns lasting over 16,000 hours, over the last five years, was a staggering $3 billion while the hourly loss stood at $18,000.
Kathuria also pointed how an ICRIER study revealed that out of the top 10 Indian cities in terms of GDP, only two have been affected by such shutdowns between 2012 and 2017, reflecting the trend of small towns being at the receiving end of such frequent disruptions.
Rajan S Mathews, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India, who had raised the issue of frequent suspension of internet services, especially by Rajasthan, with the Department of Telecom, was also among the panelists. Mathews underlined the ripple effects such measures trigger, including call drops in other regions where such bans are not enforced. The impact does not stay limited to the problem areas, he said. Often protocols are not followed in rolling out such preventive measures. The question of when and under what circumstances such bans can be enforced needs to be clear and transparent, Mathews said.
He also spoke about how the government machinery can make use of the internet in countering fake or inflammatory messages, like Bengaluru Police did during the incident of violence against people from the North East.