Frequent internet shutdowns have begun to hurt the Indian economy.
In recent years, various regional governments and authorities have displayed a growing tendency to simply switch off internet connectivity to contain social and political disturbances. It has already peaked this year.
In just the first seven months of 2018, there have been 92 such incidents across the country; in all of 2017, there were only 79, according to data from internetshutdowns.in. The website’s findings are based on data collected by New Delhi-based pro bono legal services firm Software Freedom Law Center.
“The economic impact itself is very high because our entire economy is gravitating towards internet connectivity,” said Praveen Bhadada, partner at Zinnov Management Consulting. “The estimate is anywhere between $1 billion to $3 billion of productivity losses (over the last five years) because of these outages.”
Most instances of internet shutdowns in India are knee-jerk responses to political turmoil. The latest was reported in Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra, last week. However, state governments are now resorting to it even during local examinations so as to curb cheating.
While the UN has declared access to the internet a basic human right, some argue that shutdowns are effective in certain cases.
“In times of communal riots…internet shutdown is one vehicle through which you can control the situation,” Bhadada of Zinnov said. “Unless and until one is able to ensure that information is accurate and used in the right light, one has to be a little more guarded.”
What India needs to do now is to work on clear guidelines on when such shutdowns can be ordered. While India’s telecom regulator allows for shutdowns, there is ambiguity around when and why this can be done.
“The government should start with updating the rules for internet shutdowns to have specific, narrowly-defined situations in which shutdowns could be effectuated, if at all. The aim should be no or minimum disruption, as a method of last resort,” said Akriti Bopanna, policy officer with Centre for Internet and Society, a Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation.