The first time I encountered an internet shutdown was in 2009. I was a visiting researcher at the Shanghai University and I received a computer which had default web-filtering software installed on it. My already restricted access to the web was intensified by the Chinese government shutting down the internet as a response to riots in the north-western province of Xinjiang. My connections to friends and families back home were disrupted. It took me three days to figure out how to circumvent the ban using proxy-servers and anonymisers, which cloaked my physical location. I could then send out a message that reassured everyone that all was fine.
During those two weeks of shutdown, I realised, for the first time, how fragile our digital ecosystems are and how completely without ownership our digital transactions. We are at the mercy of trigger-happy governments and profit-hungry corporations that hold our digital lives ransom. They have the capacity to censor, contain, control and eradicate all our digital data without our consent and without repercussions. In those romantic days, when I still believed that the digital promise of connectivity implied free and open public spaces for different voices to be heard and counted, it came as quite a shock to realise that the web is a contested and a controlled space. During my stay in China, once I figured out the work-arounds for these shutdowns, I spent the rest of my research time volunteering to create safe, open networks that allowed people in Shanghai, especially my students, to access the digital space. I used to take pride in the fact that, despite all our troubles in India, the internet shall remain free and that the Indian government would not compromise what is a constitutional right for free speech and expression. I remember joking that in India, the only reason I had internet shutdown was because of power outage or the incompetency of my service provider.
However, the last few years, and especially 2017, have taken away that false sense of faith and pride I had in our nation’s commitment to securing public voices of dissent, protest, and expression. The Human Rights Watch has reported that while we are just half-way into the year, the state governments in India have imposed 20 temporary internet shutdowns so far. These arbitrary, unplanned, ad hoc and reactive shutdowns have been marked as violations of India’s obligations under the international human rights law. The right to be connected is one of the new generation of basic rights available to citizens in a functioning democracy. While one can partially sympathise with the state’s argument that the shutdown was intended to crack down on rumours and hate speech instigating violence, there is no denying that these draconian measures cannot be justified by this empty rhetoric of security.
If anything, research has shown that shutting down communication channels in times of conflict encourages speculation and rumour because people no longer have access to verifiable news sources. When an internet shutdown is imposed, speculation, rampant misinformation, and credible untruths can contribute to a feeling of insecurity, danger, and knee-jerk action, which can precipitate mass violence. Especially for people who are already living precarious lives, the condition of being disconnected is severe because if they do come under attack, they no longer have any respite for urgent and immediate help. Analysis, over a period of time, has shown that the shutdown of the internet is not in the interest of keeping people safe but in the service of keeping authorities unaccountable for their actions. A suspension of all telecommunication services essentially provides the authoritarian powers an escape valve, where they are able to continue their actions, often violent, with impunity and without a sense of responsibility.
Internet shutdowns are not just about means of control but about exercising power, reminding the people in the digital commons who is in charge. It is also a sign of a crumbling apparatus of democracy, where the voice of the citizen, instead of being celebrated in the public, is seen as a problem which has to be solved. Internet shutdowns also have a clear identification of which kinds of voices should not be heard and, indeed, what can and cannot be said under restrictive conditions. Eventually, they discriminate against specific kinds of bodies — marked by identity characteristics — and leads to pathologisation and punishment of people who question the status quo. It is shameful for us that even as we dream digital, we are inching closer to the side of undemocratic demagogues rather than building robust telecommunication networks that enable the true potential of public participation and democratic governance.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.