India has received an earful from the Human Rights Watch, who in its recent report stated the nation has shut down the internet in various regions 20 times in the first five months of this year, and that four of those blackouts have taken place this month, all in states where violent protests took place.
The report highlights a drastic jump from 2016, when 31 shutdowns were recorded in total, and an even greater increase since 2012, which saw only three shutdowns.
"State governments have imposed 20 internet shutdowns so far in 2017, including by four states in June. Shutdowns in response to campaigns on social media and mobile mass messaging applications spreading false and even incendiary information have frequently been disproportionate. The authorities have failed to follow legal procedures, undermined stated objectives of preventing rumors or panic, and ordered unnecessary shutdowns such as to prevent cheating in examinations," the report stated.
Asserting that arbitrary and overbroad internet shutdowns violate India's obligations under international human rights law, the HRW report highlighted how in July 2016, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning measures by countries to intentionally prevent or disrupt online access and information, and called for free speech protections under articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
A report by the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institute estimated that India lost over US$968 million between July 2015 and June 2016 because of internet shutdowns.
The HRW cited out the following recent internet shutdowns in its report:
. On June 5, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Maharashtra state suspended mobile internet services in Nashik district for a few hours after protests by farmers turned violent.
. On June 6, the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh suspended internet services in six districts following farmers' protests for higher rates for their produce.
. On June 7, the People's Democratic Party-led government in Jammu and Kashmir state suspended mobile internet services in the Kashmir valley after the killing of a civilian by security forces. This was the fifth time the state government had suspended the mobile internet or broadband services in 2017 in a questionable attempt to prevent rumors from fueling violent clashes between government forces and street protesters.
. On June 8, the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh state shut down internet services for two days in Saharanpur district after authorities arrested a Dalit leader following violent clashes between Dalits and members of a dominant caste. The government had also temporarily shut down mobile internet services in the district two weeks earlier.
In case of the recent internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir, the government said at the time that the ban was necessary because social media services were "being misused by antinational and antisocial elements."
"Indian authorities' concerns over the misuse of the internet and social media should not be the default option to prevent social unrest. The lack of transparency and failure to explain these shutdowns only further the perception that they are meant to suppress nonviolent reporting and criticism of the government." said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director.
Advising that instead of fully shutting down networks, authorities can use social media to discourage violence and restore public order, the report cited an example from September 2016, when riots broke out in Bengaluru city, and a social media team of the police used Twitter to send out regular announcements on the law and order situation, counter rumors, and answer queries from concerned citizens.