As the world’s fastest growing Internet market, India also accounts for an increasing number of Internet shutdowns for various reasons, primarily concerns over law and order. What are the rules under which the authorities can order an Internet shutdown, and is protocol always followed? How do they defend their decisions when shutdowns come at a cost to the economy and, as activists argue, also to citizens’ freedom of expression? At IE Thinc, an initiative of The Indian Express in association with Facebook, experts discussed various aspects of an Intenet shutdown. Rajat Kathuria, Director and Chief Executive, ICRIER (Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations); Rajan S Mathews, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India; Rai Mahimapat Rai, District Magistrate, Ranchi; and Apar Gupta, Co-Founder of Internet Freedom Expression, were the panellists at the session on ‘Is Internet shutdown the new order for law and order?’, moderated by Karishma Mehrotra, Technology and Society Reporter, The Indian Express, with a presentation by Deeptiman Tiwary, Senior Assistant Editor.
Karishma Mehrotra: We’ve chosen the topic of Internet shutdowns. We’ve seen it in Egypt, we’ve seen it in China, but the distinction for the most Internet shutdowns in the world actually goes to India. Let’s dig into the numbers.
Deeptiman Tiwary: What are the laws under which Internet can be shut down? Until recently, we had Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Last year, the government came up with more regulations, and those have been the temporary suspension of Telecom Services Rules, Indian Telegraph Act and certain regulations. Powers have now been given to the Secretary of the Union Government, Secretary of the state government, to issue orders… In the last 5½ years we’ve had more than 250 Internet shutdowns, 107 of which have been this year — that data is from SFLC. Now 80% of all Internet shutdowns in South Asia in the last year have been in India. That’s a UNESCO report. We’re losing 16,000 hours to Internet shutdowns, which have led to a loss of $3 billion, which is about 40% of our National Employment Guarantee Scheme budget. That’s about an $180,000 average hourly loss in the last five years.
Mr Ray, we would like to hear a little bit about your experience calling for an Internet shutdown.
Rai Mahimapat Ray: A riot or any mob violence is a very difficult situation to tackle… And what does this image [displayed at the event] represent to you? Arson. This was an image that was sent by my wife, almost an hour and a half after the incident had been controlled. This was the image that had reached her in Bokaro in April 2016. After the Ram Navami procession, there was an outbreak of communal violence, we managed to keep both communities separate. By about 7o’clock, the situation had been curtailed. This image was from about 5 o’clock. I realised the kind of photos that were going around. And local media persons came up and said, ‘Sir, Kuch toh karna padega warna WhatsApp par pura Bokaro jal jayega.’ And it’s not to say that WhatsApp was the only medium. After about two hours, we managed to shut down the Internet. And by shutdown, I’d like to add that we’ve not shut down broadband usage, only mobile telephony Internet. So yes, I would be guilty and responsible for a loss of about $180,000 per hour into 12 hours. But we had no loss of life. We were able to bring Bokaro back to normalcy within 24 hours. Having said that, it has only been done once in my five-year tenure, out of the eight years that I have had the power to do it. It’s not an easy decision to make. But I’m happy that I made the decision, simply because we had something closer to a test case. In this case, another district in Jharkhand on exactly the same day had violence. They did not shut down the Internet till three days later, by when the situation had already cascaded to a point that took them at least three days of curfew and three people were dead before they could control the situation. Can you decide at that point of time that should I take that decision based on the fact that there is economic activity that is going to be lost? No… There have been a number of law and order incidents post that, but none of them were serious enough where we had to shut down the Internet. And I think that itself is a testimony, not to the superfluous use, but rather to a very moderated use of it.
Mr Gupta, why don’t you describe some of the alternatives you would suggest in a scenario like that?
Apar Gupta: I think there’s an essential component which goes much deeper with respect to what happens when the Internet is shut down, and that is the social costs and the deprivation of fundamental rights. What it actually entails is that it takes away the freedom of speech and expression from people, but much more deeply. It’s not a mere expression to post a Facebook status or a tweet. It’s much deeper and it’s much more pervasive with how we live our lives today — debit card, credit carinternet freedom, restrictions on internet, internet shutdown, internet freedom foundation, internet shutdown, IEThinc, ICRIER, Ranchi, Rai Mahimapat Ray, internet disruptionsd transactions, mobile authentications… it disrupts life completely. It prevents even people who are caught in the midst of these kinds of law-and-order problems, people fleeing from arsonists, people who want to send word of safety to families, who want to arrange ambulances in case we see somebody who’s injured…
The second thing is that India needs to look at how certain constitutional obligations have been set out. There are limited powers of the government, which is a trustee and custodian of taking forward certain constitutional values. Under the pretext of security — and I’m weighing this word pretext — under the pretext and guise of security, such heavy-handed measures, such total disruption is not proper. We have certain calibrated systems in which individualised services can be blocked, there are the blocking-of-Internet rules under which specific web services, websites have been blocked in the past. And in fact, even that came in for criticism, because the system was opaque, and the orders which were passed were marked top secret. Now if today, we do not even know the number, the types of websites which are being blocked by ISPs, and we do not even know the reasons… the fundamental duty with interference with any kind of fundamental right is that the reasons need to be set out to us.
What do the Public Internet Suspension Rules actually do? The first thing is, there is no central database of Internet shutdowns. Number two, the actual text of the orders is not ordinarily made available. Now, prior to this, under 144, the orders were sometimes pasted in public spaces, but ordinarily they were sent directly to the ISP and the telecom operators. There is a lack of transparency. The reasons are not stated. And what eventually happens due to this is that the orders themselves do not stand up to a certain standard of scrutiny.
Now we have noticed what is happening in Rajasthan. There’s an entrance exam for certain state services and you can download the entry pass to that exam through an application called a eMitra. This is good governance, but what happens two days prior to the exam itself? When most people would download the entry pass from the eMitra app, the Internet is suspended in Jodhpur. This is the farcical nature of what shutdowns are causing.
One final point: when we shut down the mobile Internet, which is the predominant way how we consume content today, it is called disproportionate because you snap off the very mode of access itself…. In a large array of movie censorship cases in the Supreme Court, it stated that just because you are alleging that a law and order problem will take place, it does not make speech which is otherwise legal, illegal. Otherwise, it would be a disproportionate impact. And this has been stated recently, in the movie relating to reservations, Aarakshan, in Prakash Jha vs Union of India. So you can’t basically say law and order, security, and prevent legitimate forms of speech, or speech which is within our constitutional boundaries.
Let’s move on to the economic side of this. Mr Kathuria, can you describe the report that your organisation has come out with, and also tell us a little bit about future projections?
Rajat Kathuria: The reason we in ICRIER did this study was simple, it was absolutely simple. The digital economy is expanding, and I think it’s disproportionally expanding, in a manner that belies what precedents were. So to give you an example, the number of mobile phones that we added from 1947 to 1994 — that’s 20 million — we added in a month in 2010, during certain months of 2009 and 2010. So the number of mobile phones in one month exceeded the number of phones we added in the 50 years since Independence. And once the subscribers grow, then you will see traffic growth, and then you will see services on the mobile on apps — mobile banking, health, education, e-commerce; it will just multiply. So the point is, it’s reasonable to argue that the opportunity cost of Internet shutdowns is going to only begin to multiply. We only focused on the economic impact; we went across different states, we interviewed people like Rai Mahimapat Ray, and we interviewed a number of people across Rajasthan, Gujrat, Jharkhand, Haryana and then we also went to Jammu & Kashmir,
We had to look at previous reports, and we had to do our own primary survey to get information on the number of hours of Internet shutdown in Jammu, in West Bengal, almost a six-month period in certain parts. So when Internet gets shut down, there are two things that you could imagine that could happen. One, because of increased digitisation, the cost will be very large. Two, it’s what economists call the substitution effect and the income effect. Now, you would say, people will begin to then adapt and figure out ways of finding alternative means of communications. But I think that’s not going to be very effective, given that Internet has become so fundamental to everybody’s life. So I think the economic impact is sort of going to become even higher in the future. I just want to make two additional points. We found that in our study, it was quite revealed to us, we did not see even a single Internet shutdown in any of the metropolitan areas. The closest was Ahmedabad. And then during the period of our study, which is 2012-2017, if you rank the top cities by GDP — city GDP is difficult to come by; we got it from other sources — so, in these top 10 cities, only one or two experienced Internet shutdowns, none of the metropolitan areas. You could say they didn’t need it, there wasn’t a law and order situation, or you could say that the ability to deal with potential law and order situations is better in cities or in areas with higher GDP. And the other point is that if you’re going to become a digital economy, we will see much more emphasis put on digital infrastructure. And if a lot of services are going to be delivered through the Internet, then I think [there should be] a mechanism by which we create a repository of information on where the Internet shutdowns have happened, the duration of those shutdowns and maybe potentially the costs of that shutdown. It’s not something that you’re going to look at before deciding whether or not to do an Internet shutdown. But it’s good to know that the loss of economic value is going to be there. Have a database on where and how much, the extent, the frequency, I think it’s important to create a repository. We are happy to collect that and put that information on the website so that it’s available to everybody in a democracy.
Rajan S Mathews: This irony is in our papers. Yesterday, we saw that Rajasthan is giving out free mobile phones. So in the same state where we’re talking about some of the highest numbers of Internet shutdowns, we’re seeing a concerted push and Rajasthan has come up as well.
What we found when we wrote a letter to the DoT was the fact that there seemed to be a lack of a thought process before one shut down the Internet. And the situations in Rajasthan were principally about exams and cheating. So in several instances, whole districts got shut down, Udaipur and Jaipur, for example. And consequently, our call centres get flooded. And usually what happens is that when a call comes in — say, please shut down — it’s not as if I can surgically go in and just shut down the centre where the exams are taken; it’s whole districts that we get the order to shut down. And so whole areas get shut down and there are ripple effects. Because if you shut down a tower, some poor soul out there is blaming me because there’s a dropped call. We wrote back saying that please, can you first address the issue of the permission-granting process. It was presented that there is a protocol. What we’re finding is that this has been delegated already. You are supposed to have the Home Secretary or the Secretary of the state, then there’s a Joint Secretary-level person. And now what we find is that this has been so delegated that an SP at the local level, or a district magistrate is quite empowered. Of course, under law, he or she is obviously empowered under Section 144 to make the call. But what we’re finding is that this protocol seems to be observed more in the breach than in the observance. And so we were getting all these notices — especially in Rajasthan, there were 50 shutdowns in the span of something like 9 to 10 months. And we’ve written to the DoT and the Secretary and the minister saying that please come up with the process and procedure, which goes through a rather calibrated approach saying when and under what circumstances do you begin to start looking at shutting down the Internet.
I go into a store, and I wanted to buy something, and I said, can I give you my credit card? ‘Sorry? So what’s the problem?’ ‘Oh, my thing is not working. It looks like the Internet is shut down.’ I said, where can I get some money? Go down to the ATM machine? I can’t use Google to find out where the next ATM machine is. He doesn’t know where the next ATM machine is and even if I went down to the next ATM machine, who knows if it is not wirelessly connected in order to be able to provide the service and the connectivity. So you have this ripple effect.
So the point we suggest, please give us the protocols. And please communicate to the folks like the District Magistrate who have to make the call… One finds that the training of the law-enforcement folks is obviously not as expected in some of the more metro areas. And so the attempt to use a blunt instrument becomes more apt than perhaps in a more sophisticated or more trained environment.