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Friday, April 16, 2021

How internet shutdowns damage democracy

The BJP government has the distinction of being in power when both digital penetration and curtailment of internet is on the rise


March 24, 2021 8:39:22 pm
The internet has again been the key for India to build its reputation as an IT services outsourcing destination over the last two decades. I know of people in the IT industry or investment banking crippled due to these internet shutdowns. (Image source: Pixabay/Representational)

Written By Gourav Vallabh

Most of the activities that started as pen-paper exercises have now turned digital. From operations of small businesses to meetings, from food delivery to banking, there is some digital touch in everyone’s life. Who would have imagined, even two decades ago, that even media houses would be glued to Twitter accounts of Presidents for major announcements? I strongly believe that the element of digital has provided a platform to millions who feel more valued and more heard. I was surprised to discover that there is a term for the fear of being without a mobile device: nomophobia. There was even a joke doing rounds on social media as COVID-19 brought the world to a sudden halt: “Who brought the digital transformation in your organization?” The answer was not the CEO or the CTO but COVID-19.

With the advent of COVID-19, we were forced to embrace activities or events that we never imagined could happen digitally. From doorstep banking to 8-year-old kids attending classes, it was the internet that helped us continue with our lives.

The current BJP government will have the distinction of being in power when both digital penetration and curtailment of the internet was on the rise. According to analysis by Software Freedom Law Centre, from an average of five internet shutdowns between 2012 and 2014, the number of internet shutdowns reached 134 in 2018 and 93 in 2019. According to the Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns report released by Top10VPN, internet shutdowns cost $4 Billion globally in 2020 alone with India’s share a whopping 70 per cent ($2.8 billion). The same organisation had calculated the costs for India for 2019 to be $1.3 billion.

On the one hand, the government pushes for more digital adoption, and on the other, resorts to internet shutdowns to maintain law and order. There are three aspects that need to be analyzed: First, the financial and the operational costs of such acts. Second is the moral or constitutional aspect of it and the third is the failure of the government and its agencies to act proactively and manage law and order.

There are businesses that virtually run on the web. Minus the internet they are reduced to mere ideas without operations. Companies such as Flipkart, Amazon, Swiggy, Zomato and Uber among many others are rendered futile when the internet is down. The internet has again been the key for India to build its reputation as an IT services outsourcing destination over the last two decades. I know of people in the IT industry or investment banking crippled due to these internet shutdowns.

The dual-faced nature of the government is evident, which, on the one hand, sets an overambitious target of becoming a $ 5 trillion economy by 2025 and punches holes in the economy through internet restrictions.

Freedom of speech and expression includes the right to internet under Article 19 of the Constitution of India, noted the honorable Supreme Court while reviewing internet suspension in J&K in 2020. With the onslaught of COVID-19, students mostly rely on mobile broadband to keep pace with their studies and attend classes. As per a Deloitte report, broadband penetration in rural India stands at a mere 29 per cent against national average of 51 per cent and only 7.5 per cent of our households have fixed broadband. Restricting access to students doesn’t serve a nation well.

One of the primary responsibilities of the government is to ensure law and order in the country. The best of agencies work 24X7 to ensure intelligence is available to act proactively. The question boils down to incompetence or intent. Even if we take the current farmer protests into consideration, internet services were suspended in almost all of Haryana, except Gurugram and Faridabad, for the most part after January 26. What is the intelligence that the government of Haryana has that can justify the suspension of the internet, weeks after the violence? It seems to be another gimmick to stop voices from pouring in in support of the farmers.

In this age, both the concept of digital and the concept of democracy must co-exist. They are both powerful in their own right but, together, have the potential to form a formidable force for a peaceful and prosperous world.

The writer is national spokesperson, Congress Party. Views are personal

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