In the wake of the Supreme Court’s declaration, internet access as a fundamental right has been reiterated. The consumption of adequate amount of information is required to achieve sustainable development worldwide, the United Nations asserts. In 2011, the UN declared access to the internet as a human right. However, along with India, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa opposed the UN resolution which pronounces the disruption of internet access as human rights violation.
Nobody denies the fact that freedom of expression is an essential part of democratic norms. Stifling information flow is not part of the democratic structure anywhere in the world. Besides, accessibility has become instrumental in making human capital productive. Moreover, again its usage is pivotal if India wants to achieve a $5-trillion economy to turn and realize demographic dividend from excessive demographic density. However, reports revealed that 93 per cent of internet disruptions in 2019 were in India.
It is reported that this year India infamously contributed 67 per cent of the world’s total documented shutdowns. Nevertheless, the good development is India’s Kashmir outreach in which envoys from 15 nations had a two-day trip to Jammu and Kashmir. Generally, longer internet blackouts occur in countries like China and Myanmar. Last year, it was not India but at least 29 nations such as Venezuela, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Kazakhstan and Indonesia that had suspended internet connections which hindered and curtailed the flow of information.
Human rights activists argue that disruption in internet service has now become a de facto means of suppression by governments worldwide. It is a matter of debate which often does conclude with Yes or No answers. The power of internet can be instrumental in bringing social change by the occurrence of social movements. Employing the medium of the internet, digital activism which is otherwise known as the new social movement, is making inroads in digitalized democracies.
It is powerful tool of protest for netizens. In 2011, India witnessed the power of digital activism when Anna Hazare resorted to ‘Fight Against Corruption’ which dethroned the Congress government in Delhi. The Aam Aadmi Party and Arvind Kejriwal received more gains from the digital form of political communication than any other political leader or party in India. As political pundits noted, the then fifteen-year Sheila Dikshit government succumbed to the blow of digital activism.
The very next year the entire nation saw the Nirbhaya Movement fueled by digital media which brought the amendment of the Indian Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 on laws related to sexual offences. ‘Kiss of Love’ protest was widespread as it went viral on Facebook. All these forms of social movements were unlike the Chipko, Narmada Bachao Andolan and anti-Mandal Commission movements which happened after India’s independence. Tellingly, the face of social movements has been much intensified in virtual reality.
There is mounting debate over rampant internet blackouts in contemporary India. However, it is not a completely new phenomenon. In 2013, the internet was shut down for more than 72 hours. In 2013, the internet facility was shut down for more than 72 hours and mostly these were reactive actions. In the same year, TV news channels and mobile internet were curtailed in Jammu & Kashmir following Afzal Guru’s execution. Opposition parties however accuse the NDA government of suspending internet operations in an arbitrary fashion.
But suspensions were fewer in 2019 than in the previous year and the government has on each occasion claimed that it had to shut down the internet last year in several places for maintaining law and order. Suffocation in digital information also adversely affects business and economy. From transport to hotel and from mobile to education, every sector is severely shaken by the uneven flow of internet and information. India is not an exception to it. Moreover, ecommerce has been the worst hit.
The Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations reports that from 2012 to 2017, 16,315 hours of internet shutdowns cost $3.04 billion to the economy. To address the issues of internet blackouts, effective governance and multi-stakeholder communities should work hand in hand. Instead of curbing internet access during protests in Bengaluru over the Cauvery water sharing judgment in 2016, the Bengaluru Police had strategized a different approach by taking to Twitter to dispel misinformation and rumours proactively.
India along with other nations worldwide needs to reinvent the free flow of information which mobilizes human development.
(The writer is an Assistant Professor at Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Symbiosis International (Deemed University), Pune)