Do the social, constitutional and economic costs of internet shutdowns — which have been on the rise in India — outweigh its efficacy as a law and order tool?
During Thursday’s IEThinc discussion — Is Internet Shutdown the New Order for Law and Order — this emerged as the central theme, as a panel comprising government functionaries, domain experts and lawyers debated the implications of such clampdowns.
Ranchi district magistrate Rai Mahimapat Ray, who had to enforce one such shutdown for 12 hours in Bokaro in 2016, said taking such decisions are not easy for civil servants like him.
Ray explained how the enforcement of the shutdown helped save lives and the speedy restoration of normalcy in the area.
“Another district, which was facing a similar situation, did not resort to shutdown. They ended up having the curfew in place for three days, and it also claimed three lives,” Ray said.
Such decisions cannot always be taken keeping economic considerations in mind. “A decision to ban mobile internet is not an off -the-cuff decision,” he added.
Lawyer Apar Gupta, co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, said the social cost, coupled with deprivation of fundamental rights that an internet shutdowns entails, goes beyond the monetary aspects.
“Such measures disrupt life completely… on the pretext of security, such heavy-handed measures are not proper,” he said, listing out the flip sides which range from people not being able to carry out necessary online transactions or their inability to send words of comfort to their
Gupta repeatedly stressed that the reasons behind any such clampdown by the authorities need to be clearly spelt out so as to avoid formalising a system where there is a “break from rule of law”.
“From the creation of the rules to their implementation, there is secrecy. And secrecy is the hallmark of an autocracy, not a democracy,” Gupta said.
Rajat Kathuria, director and chief executive of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), said the opportunity costs associated with such measures would only increase with time.
“Internet has become so fundamental to our lives that the economic impact is only going to be even higher in the future,” he said.
Delivering a presentation before the discussions started, The Indian Express senior assitant editor Deeptiman Tiwary shared certain related figures, including the fact that between 2012 and now, the country has witnessed at least 254 internet shutdowns, out of which 107 took place in 2018 alone.
He quoted data culled from multiple independent sources including the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC).
The discussion was moderated by technology and society reporter Karishma Mehrotra.
He said the economic cost of internet shutdowns lasting over 16,000 hours, over the last five years, was a staggering $3 billion, while the hourly loss was $18,000.
Kathuria also pointed how a study undertaken by ICRIER revealed that out of the top 10 Indian cities in terms of the GDP, only two have been affected by such shutdowns between 2012 and 2017, reflecting the trend of small towns being at the receiving end of such frequent disruptions.
Rajan S Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India, who had raised the issue of frequent suspension of internet services, especially by Rajasthan, with the department of telecom, was also among the panelists.
Mathews underlined the ripple effects such measures can trigger, including call drops in other regions where such bans are not enforced. The impact does not stay limited to the problem areas,
He said very often protocols are not followed in rolling out such preventive measures.
The question of when and under what circumstances such bans can be enforced needs to be clear and transparent, he said.
He also spoke about how the government machinery can make use of the internet in countering fake or inflammatory messages, like Bengaluru Police did during the incident of violence against people from the North East.