As internet use has surged, especially in developing world, so have attempts to switch off flow of information
Thu 19 Dec 2019 12.45 GMTLast modified on Thu 19 Dec 2019 20.50 GMT
On Thursday, internet shutdowns came to the capital city of the world’s largest democracy.
The suspension of data services, phone calls and texting to curb protests in parts of Delhi was an inauspicious milestone for a tactic that is becoming an increasingly common tool for authoritarian governments – but practised most often by India.
As internet penetration has surged this past decade, especially in the developing world, so have attempts to switch off the flow of information. The internet-freedom group Access Now recorded 75 internet outages around the world in 2016; the figure more than doubled to 196 last year.
With protest movements convulsing dozens of countries this year, the figure is likely to be “much, much higher”, said Berhan Taye, a senior policy analyst at Access Now.Advertisement
Iraq has periodically curbed the internet as violent protests have spread throughout the country. In Ethiopia, enforced outages have become so frequent that they are damaging the economy, costing an estimated US$4.5m a day, according to figures from a digital rights group. Reports of outages from Venezuela are so frequent that they can barely be counted, Taye said. “It’s like a child is at the switch, turning it on and off whenever they fear something is happening,” she said.
Since India’s first recorded use of the tactic, six times in 2012, it has become the world’s undisputed leader, accounting for 134 internet shutdowns last year, around 68% of the global total. This week, it broke the record for the longest continuous outage for any democracy: 137 days and counting in the restive region of Kashmir.
The blackout there has wreaked havoc on businesses, medical services and education. In its early days, reporters were forced to fly to Delhi to deliver their material or hang around the airport in the capital, Srinagar, and persuade the passengers flying out to carry memory cards containing the videos, pictures and stories of those left behind.
Governments justify the curb on the freedom to communicate by citing public order. And it is clear that the hyper-speed with which information – true or otherwise – travels online is creating problems. In 2018, India struggled to contain rumours of child kidnappers on the loose that travelled faster and more widely than authorities could track, whipping up mobs who lynched at least 30 people across the country.
A few months before, Sri Lanka’s government blocked social media to curb the spread of hateful posts that were helping to spark deadly anti-Muslim riots. “The whole country could have been burning in hours,” the country’s information minister at the time said.
But measures first implemented in the crucible of crises are quickly spilling over into regular use. A tactic whose use (and misuse) most Indians accepted in border states such as Jammu & Kashmir and Assam is now being used to quell largely peaceful protests in Delhi and Bengaluru.
Autocratic states such as Russia and Iran are mapping out the next step: “sovereign” internets that can be cut off from the outside world whenever a ruler chooses or walled off altogether, as in the case of China’s “great firewall”.
November’s massive protests in Iran were an opportunity for the country’s rulers to try out what is sometimes called the “halal net”: a project to create an Iranian intranet that can continue functioning even as citizens are cut off from the global internet.
It was far from perfect: many cash machines failed and some hospital communication networks went down, Iranians reported. But many were still being able to hail a car using the local ride-sharing service Snapp. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said this month the service would be developed until “people will not need foreign [networks] to meet their needs”.
Governments elsewhere are paying attention. “Countries are learning from each other, how these shutdowns work and how they can be implemented,” Taye said.
The increasing use of shutdowns is concerning everywhere, but matters most in India. As a country that touts itself as a future democratic superpower, how India treats the internet will serve as an example to countries less committed to civil liberties.
An editorial this week in the Chinese state media outlet, People’s Daily Online, did not miss the opportunity to highlight the message India’s leaders are sending. “It means that shutting down the internet in a state of emergency should be standard practice for sovereign countries,” it said.Topics