For almost 12 hours yesterday (Sept. 26), people in Rajasthan had no internet access at all.
With around 1.6 million people sitting for the Rajasthan Eligibility Exam for Teachers (REET) across more than 4,000 locations, the local government shut down the internet between 6am and 6pm to prevent cheating.
This isn’t the first time the state has cut off internet access under the pretext of exams. And nor is it alone. Within India and abroad, authorities have been shutting down the internet to safeguard against fraudulent activity in education, like fake news and paper leaks.
However, such blackouts aren’t without consequence, activists say.
The cost of internet shutdowns
When this recent shutdown was announced, a donor-supported legal services organization warned against its pitfalls.
“Internet shutdowns have a harrowing impact on citizens and are often disproportionate in nature. Internet shutdowns are bound to cause economic loss, an impact on education, healthcare and other welfare schemes,” the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) wrote in a letter to the chief minister of Rajasthan. “An internet shutdown during a pandemic can be especially grave considering citizens depend on the internet to get information, work and study.”
Days earlier, the Udaipur trade body, too, protested the blackout, fearing huge financial losses because of industrial and business activity coming to a standstill.
Additionally, the SFLC’s letter stated that temporarily banning the internet to prevent cheating is a violation of law since it does not count as a “public emergency” or “public safety” measure. Another digital rights advocacy firm, the Internet Freedom Foundation, has also accused the Rajasthan government of flouting internet shutdown laws in the past.
But all the outcry was of little avail. Online classes and medical consultations were disrupted. Internet users complained about not being able to work from home, digital payments failing, and navigation becoming inaccessible, among other things. The umpteenth shutdown in the largest Indian state by area, home to over 68 million people, proceeded as planned.