Over 16,000 hours of internet shutdowns cost the economy a little over $3 billion over the last five years, according to a report by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).
The data comes a day after The Indian Express reported that Indian internet service providers (ISPs) blocked the most number of web pages and installed maximum internet filtering systems, in an international investigation of 10 countries. The blocked pages included those of media such as ABC News and Al Jazeera, NGOs, United Nations, human rights groups, and political activists. In some instances, users received a time-out message, misinforming them of why a certain website was blocked.
For many, these two revelations signal a broken regulatory landscape of the government-blocked internet.
“There is a general transparency problem in the Indian internet regulation ecosystem,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima of AccessNow, an international digital rights advocacy group. Shutdowns and website blocking, both are controlled by the same agency, the Department of Telecommunications. “DOT doesn’t seem to know what’s fully going on or its practices are unclear,” Chima said.
ICRIER has recommended several remedies, including official communication and data about shutdowns and policies, as well as restricting the use of blanket shutdowns.
While some say transparency and regulation requires more scrutiny, instances of internet shutdowns have more than doubled last year, with an average hourly loss of over $1,80,000 in India over the last five years, ICRIER found. ICRIER director Rajat Kathuria stated that the study was unprecedented in its bottom-up approach that focused on the state-level analysis to make nationwide estimates. Previous reports by Brookings Institution estimate that in 2016, internet shutdowns cost the Indian economy $986 million.
While Kathuria noted that his economy-focused research does not go as far as to condemn or justify shutdowns, he stressed the future opportunity costs of the shutdown approach as infrastructure becomes more heavily digitised.
“If you feel that [a shutdown] has no cost or the economic cost is minor or meager, your natural reaction is … you might as well shut it down,” he said. “But if the economic cost is large, then you may think, you may pause before you press the trigger. That’s the message.”
Mansi Kedia, who was involved in the ICRIER research, hopes that if policymakers become more cognizant of the economic impact, they will resort to shutdowns more judicially. “The point of the report was to motivate a discussion on the indiscriminate rise of internet shutdowns,” she said. “It doesn’t seem real that suddenly in three years, communal tensions has increased at a level which only can be controlled by internet shutdowns. It seems unreal.”
The report states that rumours, automated fake accounts, and chain letter scams on social media and messaging often create serious security concerns that spark the shutdowns. “While solutions are being crafted and internet companies are tirelessly working on finding ways to curb it, an immediate and popular approach among governments is to order temporary suspension of internet services,” the report states. The report lays out suggestions to promote counter-speech, educate against hate speech, and promote independent fact-checking.
According to the report, “India is vulnerable to the rising menace of social media crimes.” “Internet companies that serve as the medium are literally on the horns of a legal dilemma with respect to sifting information-to sift or not to sift? A similar predicament confronts governments that on the one hand support development of the internet and associated infrastructure for digital enablement and on the other clamp down on its functioning using ordered measures such as censorship, blocking and shutdowns.”
In 2015, Rai Mahimapat Ray, District Magistrate in Ranchi, Jharkhand, called for an internet shutdown during violence in his district. At an ICRIER panel on Wednesday, he showcased a photo of two flaming trucks that circulated on WhatsApp during the violence, and that his decision brought safety to the situation.
“The reason why hyper-localised shutdowns don’t work in a district, especially in a communal situation is that you have to prevent … metastasis,” he said. “If any of you have been in a communal situation, you will realise that economic activity is the last thing you wonder about. It is about safeguarding your family. It is about safeguarding your household.”