Internet Freedom Is Expected to See a Dip This Year (But People Will Find Ways to Stay Connected)

On the night of January 5th, outside the North Gate of Delhi’s premier educational institute Jawaharlal Nehru University, I tried, while balancing on my toes among young people pushing and pulling each other, to upload photos and videos of the chaos unfolding in front of me with no success.

I was suddenly proud of my physical strength that I could endure a stampede-like situation, but was crestfallen that my phone internet was down. Being locked out of the worldwide web is indeed a forlorn feeling. Hours later, when I had walked almost a kilometre away from the tumultuous scene in darkness, for all the streetlights had been inexplicably shut off while a masked mob went on a rampage inside the university, I realised my phone data was working again—and the photos and videos started automatically uploading to my Facebook wall.

Shutting down internet services or rendering them slow is a strategy that governments play across the globe while tackling protests, unrest or even worse, such as civil wars or wars between countries or groups of nations. The idea, as we all know, is to snap communication links among people who are part of these protests or violent uprisings or modern war. While it is incontestably an effective method to heighten security vigil and to fight crime, most often states come under attack for clamping down on individual freedoms as a ruse to muffle dissent and delay instant sharing of either government inaction or excess. At a time when more Indians are using smartphones to communicate almost for free, either to do business or to stay in touch, any such hurdles are seen as an encroachment on the civil liberties of people. The country is home to one of the fastest-growing smartphone markets in the world.

Ironically, it was around this time 10 years ago that Arab Spring movements across West Asia and North Africa relied on the power of the internet to make possible what was considered impossible: throw out their long-serving rulers from Libya to Egypt and successfully push for fundamental changes in governance from Bahrain to Tunisia. In India, too, it was around this time that anti-corruption activists rode on the strength of the internet to mobilise support for their cause. Even an organisation of the stature of Avaaz.org, which had backed democratic movements from Brazil to Egypt, worked pro bono for the Anna Hazare-led movement. I recall speaking to its co-founder and then president, Gujarati-origin Ricken Patel, who was gung-ho about the immense possibilities of how the internet can usher in social and political change.

2.45 Crore amount in rupees that cellular operators lose hourly when they suspend Internet services on government orders to control protests against CAA (Source: COAI)

Since then we have seen the good, bad and ugly faces of the internet. From forcing Northeastern students in south India to flee by flooding social media with false alarms of impending violence to mobs using messaging platforms for nefarious purposes like lynching to social media giants like Facebook putting in controls to check fake news and deep fakes (computer-generated video and audio clips that appear real) on their platforms, we have come a long way. Like any other government in the world, the one in India has enough and more reasons to be deeply concerned about the law and order situation besides external threats, as it shares borders with a hostile neighbour, Pakistan, with which it has fought multiple wars since Partition. Increasingly, it faces internal threats from forces inimical to its intentions.

According to intelligence reports, India needs to stay alert against movements with subversive religious tendencies. The influence of outfits such as the Islamic State cannot be downplayed at any cost. Similar are dangers posed by the violent ways of groups that are emboldened by religious and ethnic polarisations. To safeguard the nation as one entity is indeed a Herculean task.

Even so, the Government’s propensity for effecting shutdowns has earned the wrath of advocates of freedom of choice, saying that it ought to stay committed to the principles of democracy, India being the largest such entity in the world. Recent surveys show that such protestations may not be unreasonable.

The Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns in 2019 report, prepared by the UK-headquartered digital privacy thinktank Top10VPN, ‘identifies the total economic impact of every major internet blackout and social media shutdown around the world’ annually. In its latest report released on January 7th, it places India just below war-ravaged Sudan and Iraq in terms of internet blackouts, accounting for 4,196 hours of such shutdowns last year, with total cost of the action touching a whopping $1.3 billion.

The report says, ‘India imposes internet restrictions more often than any other country, with over 100 shutdowns documented in 2019. As they tend to be highly-targeted, even down to the level of blacking out individual city districts for a few hours while security forces try to restore order, many of these incidents have not been included in this report, which instead focused on larger region-wide shutdowns.’

It adds, ‘The full economic impact is therefore likely to be higher even than our $1.3 billion figure.’

The January 7th global report goes on, ‘The most significant disruptions have been in the turbulent Kashmir region, where after intermittent shutdowns in the first half of the year, access has been blocked since August, with no end to restrictions in sight.’ According to this report, Indian authorities have attempted to justify the digital blackout on national security grounds due to unrest in Kashmir following their controversial decision to strip India’s only Muslim-majority region of its autonomy.

Referring to internet blackouts following protests over the new citizenship law, which was passed last month, it says, ‘Elsewhere violent reactions in December to another change to Indian law, which has been viewed as another bid to marginalise the country’s Muslim minority, prompted internet blackouts across many districts of Uttar Pradesh, along with the nearby regions of Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya.’

The report by the UK-based organisation notes that the other major shutdown had its root in religious tensions. ‘A Supreme Court decision in November ruling on the dispute over the Ayodhya holy site that’s simmered between Hindus and Muslims for over a century prompted shutdowns ‘to avoid the spread of misinformation’ in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, and also in the Rajasthan region,’ the new report stated.

67% of global Internet disruptions (under instruction by the state) happened in India in 2018 (source: https://internetshutdowns.in/)

We are now in 2020 and the protests and strong opposition to various controversial policies of the ruling dispensation have not dissipated one bit. Contrary to expectations, the country, at least in its urban spaces, has seen quick mobilisation of large groups of people either engaged in fighting street battles or launching into mass protests or, in fact, expressing solidarity with protestors elsewhere.

Most importantly, students have hit the streets and campuses. This is true of anti-CAA protests as well as marches, sit-ins and congregations taken out in support of fellow students who landed up in hospital in universities across Delhi, Aligarh, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and elsewhere. Various universities and prestigious academic institutions have felt the ripples on their campuses of strikes going on in other parts of India.

While one can argue over the merits or lack of the same of such expressions of anger, it is clear that these protests can no longer be ignored. Offline movements are being matched with gusto online, as celebrities and common men alike have rallied to raise their voices. Even those in favour of the Government are taking out demonstrations and processions, making it clear that the age of protests and counter-protests is here to stay.

It is therefore fair to expect that the agitation mode that India currently finds itself in is not expected to wane. A year ago, it was unthinkable that any major mass protest against the Government would endure very long. However, the last few weeks of 2019 proved that wrong, especially when a large group of people perceived that their democratic liberties were at stake. While the counter-narrative is strong as well, there are no signs of anyone giving up: neither the protestor who is determined to stick to his goals of forcing the Government to backtrack on crucial policies, for instance over citizenship, nor the Government, which has said repeatedly that it has made a law securing majority in Parliament and therefore cannot be browbeaten through street protests to cow down.

Proof of the protestors’ resilience is more than evident in South Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh where elderly women have been on full-time protests for more than 25 days, refusing to budge despite fears of forcible eviction by police or attacks similar to the one that happened in JNU on January 5th when masked assailants went on a rampage, destroying property and attacking students and professors with police-grade, polycarbonate lathis, stones and pepper spray.

Yet, these women at Shaheen Bagh, who say they are fighting to safeguard the Constitution and against the new citizenship law, show no signs of relenting. Some of them are on hunger strike. As the crowd swells by each evening, they continue to be cheerfully determined in their united stance. In these areas, too, internet services are patchy and erratic, contributing to the overall restriction of freedom to communicate online and to the frustration of journalists like me.

For a democracy, India’s trigger-happiness in imposing partial or full restrictions on internet services is indeed questionable. This is not just about personal freedoms, but also a matter of domestic growth and economic policy. Though this Government has time and again used digitisation as the reason behind several large-scale campaigns and programmes, even demonetisation, it now seems impervious to the fact that almost every industry in India today—from banking to retail to communications—is dependent on the internet as part of its basic infrastructure. Without the internet, an already struggling economy is further crippled.

Besides the latest report by Top10VPN, some weeks ago, SFLC.in, which tracks disruption of internet services through various sources, said that India cut such services 134 times in 2018. In Kashmir, since the Government revoked its autonomy in early August, internet lockdown continues to this day. While reports talk of huge economic losses to the region of over Rs 17,000 crore on account of this action, more worrying is the plight of students and jobseekers, some of whom have to take short flights elsewhere to check their emails. Many people have been forced out of WhatsApp because these accounts typically expire after 120 days of inactivity.

With protests mounting in the rest of the country, especially among students, the Government, as these surveys highlight, is most likely to take the route it has followed so far: to snap internet services. For the Government, the argument has been that law and order is a greater priority in terms of national crises, meaning internet freedom could be a casualty, just as it is in Kashmir and it was in many parts of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, ruled with an iron fist by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, besides several other parts of the country, including large areas of the Northeast. Most of these places, except Kashmir, have seen massive protests over the new citizenship law.

While courts have so far not taken into cognisance the legal validity of such blackouts that throw life out of gear, especially in metro cities, on January 7th, the Allahabad High Court, according to Livelaw legal news site, took suo motu cognisance of the situation in Uttar Pradesh, which had reeled under, besides internet shutdowns, violence following the passage of the new citizenship amendment bill. The court noted that the situation in the state was antithetical to core constitutional values. The court has appointed two lawyers as amicus curiae to look into the matter and issue notice to the state government.

Interestingly, the SFLC report talks about the legal ways employed by the Indian Government to go for internet blackouts using an archaic law. It explains, ‘Section 144 was a provision designed to help contain law and order situations by vesting State Government officials with emergency powers, and it has traditionally been used to issue curfews and dismiss unlawful assemblies during widespread civil unrest.’ It emphasises, ‘As an archaic provision of law that has been carried down from the British Raj, this Section was clearly not designed to oversee State actions like internet shutdowns, where a lot more nuances must ideally be considered before imposing restrictions.’

With the current Government unequivocally committed to fulfilling promises the coalition leader, the BJP, had made in its election manifesto, more controversial bills can be expected this year. Although the Government has now said that it has no immediate plans to do a pan-India NRC (National Register of Citizens) like the one done in Assam, Uniform Civil Code is one of the BJP’s poll promises. It has also been pushing ahead with plans to hold simultaneous elections to states and the Centre besides going for civil service reforms. It is very likely that some of these moves will face stiff resistance and mass protests, which the Government will once again clamp down on.

Though the opposition views such moves by the Government as authoritarian and as an attempt to delegitimise dissent in order to move India away from its traditional secular character and deep-rooted adherence to democracy, its objections have been feeble at best. While both sides offer their justifications for their points of view, there is hardly any common ground for both to seek any kind of reconciliation. With students and other groups taking up the role of the opposition in championing what they argue as rightful dissent in a democratic country, things are hurtling to a situation where there are greater chances of confrontation, and therefore crackdown.

Politics has become monstrously competitive in this age of social media, with pitched battles being fought even online to maintain favourable trends on various platforms. WhatsApp has become the most preferred form of sharing information or misinformation to ensure tit-for-tat campaigns online. The trend is reflected offline too with ties between politicians becoming far more rigid and hostile than ever before even in democracies, of course, with probable exceptions.

The presence of both online and offline intermediaries has queered the pitch and lessened the warmth, overall. While this is an area where more research is in order, mellowing one’s stance to show statesmanlike qualities is not as appreciated as it once was. Inclusivity and diplomacy are long-term investments that earn no eyeballs, either offline or online, in the digital age. Instead, it is extreme rhetoric that is instantly rewarded—both by television channels hankering after TRPs and by digital algorithms that pick keywords to present relevant web content to readers.

There are more reasons for the skew in what is visible and what isn’t: the number of people who can express their opinions and be heard has risen rapidly thanks to the internet. The discourse online also perhaps appears shriller than the offline space thanks to its very nature of lacking proximity and human touch. All these aspects of online communication and media contribute to political hostilities getting amplified. In this context, the concept of bipartisanship has weakened considerably.

Playing to the gallery has become far more frequent for politicos, as they are under constant pressure to connect with their constituents and backers or else there could be a backlash. The fallout is that extreme positions taken by authoritarian politicians have also struck a blow to democratic principles. The face-off is inevitable. In India, 2020 is sure to see more action.

With confrontation of divergent views more discordant than ever, the side that is in government has a clear edge because it can determine when and where to snap off internet services. This abuse of power looks par for the course this year. We could also expect more surveillance of citizens, forcing people to voluntarily opt out of using internet services as they used to do in the past. This certainly amounts to curtailing of internet freedom.

This scenario is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Last year, an Israeli spyware that was exclusively sold to governments and official agencies was used to snoop on 1,400 civilians, mostly lawyers, journalists and rival politicians in over 40 countries, by exploiting a vulnerability on WhatsApp. The number of civilian victims of this attack in India stood at 121 and, with the exception of those who chose to speak out of their own volition, neither WhatsApp nor the Toronto-based Citizen Lab, which helped the messaging freeware investigate into a case of hacking between April 29th and May 10th of 2019, disclosed the names of people targeted for surveillance for fear or victimisation.

It was the same spyware, Pegasus, made by NSO Group Technologies, that was reportedly used to track the movements of Saudi Arabian-origin journalist, author and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi who was brutally murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden had then called NSO the ‘worst of the worst’. Certainly, surveillance of that kind will deter many people from using online services and apps that are considered vulnerable to malware attacks.

While this year is expected to see a further drop in internet freedom, people, as protestors in Hong Kong showed us, will find ways to beat the system. To ward off ‘smart’ lampposts with built-in cameras that could possibly be used by authorities for facial recognition software, protestors used umbrellas to hide their faces. They also navigated the protest-torn city and changed routes using smart apps, thus creating new meanings to dissent in this dystopian-like world of the surveillance state.

At a time when information has been weaponised, people are sure to find ways to beat internet blackouts through innovative ways as they have done using apps like FireChat, Bridgefy and Signal Offline among others, which offer offline messaging. Even in the most trying times, like life, information finds its way.

First published in Open

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