Increasingly, Indian authorities are pulling the plug on the internet.
They say the tactic is the most effective tool against militants and troublemakers who organise online.
Perhaps surprisingly, internet freedom advocates agree they are right to be worried. But conversely, authorities acknowledge the perils of limiting communication in the world’s largest democracy.
Mishi Choudhary says she sees a disturbing trend in internet shutdowns in India. (ABC News: James Bennett)
“With one Whatsapp message or one message, a large number of people can be collected and that can lead to a number of law and order problems,” says Mishi Choudhary, co-founder of Software Freedom Law Centre of India.
Paramilitary’s Inspector-General Kashmir Ravideep Sahi says the only aim is to maintain the law, order and peace. (ABC News: James Bennett)
“Whenever freedom is restricted — even for a shorter time — there is some kind of, I would say annoyance,” says Ravideep Sahi, CRPF Paramilitary’s Inspector-General of Jammu and Kashmir.
Co-creator of Kashbook Alternative Social Media Platform Zeyan Jeelani says banning social media is “suppressing freedom of speech”. (ABC News: James Bennett)
“The site is moderated, it [content] is removed if it is anti-national,” says Zeyan Jeelani, co-creator of ‘Kashbook’ Alternative Social Media Platform.
They are perhaps not the sentiments you would expect from an open internet campaigner, a security chief and a programmer, but India’s internet freedom debate is complex.
“A lot of people are misusing it [the internet],” Mr Sahi says, justifying the bans, which have ranged from hours to weeks.
Mr Sahi is responsible for the operations of India’s Central Reserve Police Force — the world’s largest paramilitary — in Jammu and Kashmir, the strife-plagued northern region of the subcontinent claimed by India, Pakistan and separatists.
“But then, you have to look at the larger good of society,” he says, of trying to balance freedom and security.
“The only aim is to maintain the law and order and peace.”
Jammu and Kashmir has endured the lion’s share of a dramatic increase in internet shutdowns — 38 since 2012, according to monitors at India’s Software Freedom Law Centre.
“I do see a disturbing trend,” Ms Choudhary says of the national picture.
The group logged just three in 2012, five in 2013, and six in 2014.
But in 2015, as messaging services spread, so too did efforts to combat their use.
“That year there were 14, in 2016 it was 31,” she says, in the group’s Delhi office.
“This year we’ve already touched 30 and it’s only July right now.”
How else to respond?
Modi’s Government wants to “transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy”. (Parivartan Sharma: Reuters)
But Ms Choudhury — an Indian-born, Dutch-educated lawyer who now splits her time between Delhi and New York — jokes that her “Indian-self” can see the necessity.
“Its more nuanced than people think,” she says.
“India does have a long history of communal riots, and a lot of this is to prevent those sorts of clashes.”
Select social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can be the subject of “targeted switch-offs”. (Reuters: Dado Ruvic)
More frequent than blanket shutdowns are “targeted switch-offs” — where security agencies will disable mobile data, or select social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, under the same law used to impose a curfew.
The encrypted group messaging service Whatsapp, is particularly feared by authorities.
“The ability of one person to communicate to a large crowd, the push of a button has been amplified, so I am no longer in a position to dismiss their [security agencies’] concern, saying, oh ‘free speech and expression’,” Ms Choudhury acknowledges.
Narendra Modi waves as Cyrus Mistry (R), chairman of Tata Group watches during the launch of Digital India Week in New Delhi. (Reuters: Adnan Abidi)
The shutdowns are hurting India’s push into the digital economy and are making it harder for the Federal Government to convince Indians of the internet’s merits.
A study on the global impact of internet shutdowns by think tank The Brookings Institute estimated the cost at $US2.4 billion, of which India accounted for nearly $US1 billion.
Shutdowns affecting retailers
In Indian Kashmir’s capital Srinagar, a middle-aged woman enters a small boutique.
On her phone is a dress she has spotted online, on the shop’s Instagram page.
A prolonged mobile shutdown last year saw their sales drop 40 per cent, owners and sisters Afshan and Mehnaz Mir say.
“We don’t want it to happen again and again,” Afshan says.
“It really affects us,” added Mehnaz.
“Nowadays you can see, the marketing, everything, is done on internet, online.”
According to the aim of its digital India policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Government wants to, “transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy”.
It aims to improve computer literacy, save money and eliminate corruption by migrating government services and transactions online.
Senior ministers have acknowledged the conflict between the policy and the trend.
“The trouble is people are misusing it, so temporary intervention has to be there,” IT and Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said when asked earlier this year about the impact on Kashmir’s economy and citizens in particular.
“But I do take your point that Kashmir does need proper uninterrupted availability of Internet.”
A right to internet?
Motorists ride past a billboard displaying Facebook’s Free Basics initiative in Mumbai, India. (Reuters: Danish Siddiqui)
“Banning social media is kinda … suppressing freedom of speech,” computer programmer Zeyan Jeelani, 18, says.
Mr Jeelani built his own network to get around social media bans that order specified big-name sites offline.
“Kashbook gave a Kashmiri touch,” he explains with a grin.
“It can offer you many features, like live texting, audio call, video call and you can post stuff to your friend’s wall, image, status.”
Indians’ constitutional right to free speech is subject to “reasonable restrictions” — including “public order, decency and morality”.
Nowhere is this more keenly appreciated than in Kashmir, where Mr Jeelani says he strives to prevent his site becoming a haven for the type of anti-India sentiment often scrawled so prominently on Srinagar’s physical walls.
“The site is moderated, it [content] is removed if it is anti-national,” he says.
But as the internet reaches further into rural India, there’s little doubt its transformative effect on people’s lives will make depriving them of it harder.
By 2020, internet giant Google predicts half of India’s 1.3 billion people will be connected.
In a 2015 case challenging one week-long shutdown, India’s Supreme Court decided that the imposition on law-abiding citizens could be legally justified in the interests of public order.
In a recent editorial calling for a federal policy on shutdowns, Indian business publication Mint pondered: “It will be interesting to see if the courts hold the same opinion, say, a decade from now”.