Last week, India celebrated 71 years of independence from Great Britain, marking its birth in 1947 as the world’s largest democracy. But in 2012, it started taking a not-so-democratic approach at enforcing public safety: turning off the Internet.
Internet shutdowns were first notably used during the Arab Spring in 2011, when some regimes tried to prevent protestors who relied on social media from organizing online.
Today, India employs more internet blackouts than any other country in the world. The Internet has been turned off 97 times already this year, 18 more times than in all of 2017.
The first documented shutdown happened six years ago in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, where battles between separatists and the military are commonplace. Officials here feel that blackouts are an important part of maintaining security and turned off the internet ahead of Independence Day celebrations.
With at least 37 blackouts this year, the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir have their internet cut off more than residents of any other state in India.
“It’s a human right for every person to use internet” says Iqra Ahmed, a Kashmiri fashion entrepreneur. “I don’t have a physical store, so if Internet is banned, my whole business does not work properly, actually.”
A recent study estimates that from 2012 to 2017, Internet blackouts have cost the country over $3 billion in lost revenue.
India has taken massive steps to expand its digital infrastructure through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Digital India” program. In 2015, India overtook America as the second largest nation online and now has more than 462 million internet users.
Last August, the government codified rules to the colonial-era telegraph laws to regulate Internet blackouts, which have since only increased, both in scope and frequency.
“These shutdowns seem to be spreading from border states to much more of mainland India” says Apar Gupta, a co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “It’s becoming a regular tool of administrative practice.”
This year, the state of Rajasthan has shut the Internet down on three different occasions in attempts to prevent cheating on exams. Gupta worries that more shutdowns will affect Indian democracy.
“Internet shutdowns are completely unacceptable in any democratic system. It eventually only causes a greater amount of lack of trust between citizens and the government itself and gives them a sense that they’re not being heard.”
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