Frequent internet shutdowns in the Indian region of Kashmir provide a valuable case study for how technology governance can become a tool of political control. The Indian government leads the world in these techniques, instituting 75 shutdowns over the course of 2022 alone.
Internet shutdowns go beyond the selective repression of censorship or surveillance techniques by completely preventing individuals from using the internet. Governments can implement these shutdowns by ordering internet service providers to completely disable connectivity across cellular, wired, or other communications spectra.
The consequences of internet shutdowns are wide-ranging: Businesses struggle to survive, unable to sell their products or advertise to their customers. Individuals lack the ability to communicate with loved ones or friends, even in emergency situations. Governments are shielded from accountability, as residents can no longer easily upload photos or videos of police or military actions. Democratic checks and balances deteriorate, as citizens are no longer able to effectively organize large protests.
The Kashmir region alone exceeds any democratic country in the world in the number of internet shutdowns it experiences. Most recently, the Kashmir region experienced an unprecedented 552-day long shutdown – created and enforced as an “indefinite” measure – between August 2019 and February 2021. Understanding the legal, economic, and cultural context in which the Indian government applies these restrictions repeatedly and extensively can help to demonstrate the importance of designing independent and transparent processes for internet governance.
In this blog post, I argue that internet shutdowns have become a standard method for federal and state officials in India to silence those who dissent from the governing BJP agenda. The government’s repressive policies will further erode India’s democratic system unless legislators push back and create a more transparent and accountable system for technology governance in India.
Law: A Shield for Political Agenda
The Indian government justifies internet shutdowns in Kashmir with national security concerns and claims to protect safety by quelling social unrest. As its legal justification for these measures, the government uses the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Service) Rules (an addition to the Indian Telegraph Act 1885).
However, a closer look at the composition of these shutdowns makes it hard to believe that these measures are purely for security needs. Kris Ruijgrok’s analysis of government requests for internet shutdowns throughout India reveals that they occur more often in BJP-ruled states. (Following the 2019 Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, Jammu and Kashmir is a union territory and no longer a state—it is effectively governed by the BJP-controlled federal government).
According to the analysis, between 2012 and 2020, on average 9.6 districts were affected by internet shutdowns per month in states where the BJP is part of the government. This is an increase by 3.5 times over the average of 2.7 affected districts per month in states without the BJP being part of the government. The analysis also shares findings from interviews with officials responsible for the shutdowns. These findings show that although the recent Supreme Court ruling should improve transparency and checks, these shutdowns continue to happen without prior notice or approval from the courts.
Internet shutdowns often have the consequence of preventing peaceful protest, since they are implemented as immediate follow-ons to controversial actions taken by BJP politicians. Actions which prompted immediate follow-on shutdowns include the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which excluded Muslims from citizenship law amendments and proposed to create a citizenship registry, as well as the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which significantly reduced Kashmir’s capacity for autonomous self-governance.
Yet, even though the justification for internet shutdowns relies on “security” considerations, Khalid Shah observed that it is hard to trace a causal line between internet shutdowns and improved security in Kashmir, when the incidence of terrorist attacks remains high and policies such as internet shutdowns have themselves been used as fodder for radicalization and recruitment. Additionally, members of the United Nations Human Rights Council have stressed their concerns that the recent 552-day long internet shutdown in Kashmir between 2019 and 2021 has likely been useful to the Indian government as a means to prevent reports of rights violations including night raids in private homes, enforced “disappearances,” and excessive force against protestors.
Tight Supervision & Data Extraction
The large number of internet shutdowns coincides with individual and corporate digital sovereignty being increasingly under threat in India. The Indian central government has sought to weaken private protections, ensuring that it becomes the central clearinghouse for digital personal data. This allows the Indian government to have an increasing amount of fine-grained control over individual livelihoods and access to capital.
Internet platforms ranging from the large Meta-owned messenger WhatsApp to the much smaller Razorpay have been increasingly under pressure from the Indian government to provide data on their users at the request of officials. These market interventions exist alongside the government-run Aadhar system, which collects biometric and other personal data as a prerequisite for obtaining a wide variety of government benefits. There are no laws in place to prevent Aadhar’s data from being used for law enforcement or other government activities.
The economic consequences of the Indian government’s power in the digital realm are seen in the harsh effects of prolonged regional internet shutdowns. For Kashmir, the 2019-2020 shutdown is estimated to have incurred over 1 billion US Dollars in economic losses. Students from the region call out stifled internet access as a greater barrier to their educational progression than the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the frequency of internet shutdowns in Kashmir, businesses in the food services and restaurant industries must be prepared to lose thousands of dollars in revenue on a daily basis. Over a longer time horizon, the shutdowns result in reduced tourism rates, emigration of a talented workforce, and an increasingly unattractive environment for entrepreneurship or business growth.
Fine-Grained Technical Control and Chilling Effects
The Indian government’s far reach within the private market also enables it to have precise controls over the availability of technical systems that enable internet access. Few accounts exist that provide insight into how the Indian government operationally institutes internet shutdowns, but the records available show that local internet service providers are accustomed to following government guidance without question and feel they have little room to push-back.
During the “indefinite” internet shutdown in Kashmir, the Indian government temporarily relaxed wired access while restricting mobile data connections to only be available at 2G speed. Only ~3% of the Indian population has access to wired internet connections, meaning that the internet was still effectively banned for the vast majority of Kashmiri residents. This also meant that it remained very difficult for most mobile internet users to upload or download photos or videos on their smartphones. Reporting violent incidents or sharing information with short notice remained impossible for most people in the region.
India’s tightening controls over the internet and personal data have caused Kashmiris to reasonably assume that the government can fully monitor their online interactions. This, in turn, has led to a “chilling effect” among Kashmiris as they have become much more careful about the activities they choose to engage in online. Content creators in Kashmir attest to no longer being as open or critical with the topics they cover on their Instagram Reels or YouTube Channels. This worry is justified by a history of police summons for social media users who post content critical of the Indian government.
Lessons for Balanced Governance
Internet shutdowns have become a normalized response by the federal and state governments to any risks of unrest throughout India. Often, these risks of unrest are provoked by unpopular and polarizing actions taken by the governing BJP party. Follow-on internet shutdowns—justified under the loose pretext of “security”—have become part of a standard playbook for state government officials who answer to BJP leaders.
There are lessons for improved internet governance in this recent history. As a first step towards repairing the breakdown in legitimacy that these activities demonstrate, the government should actually follow the Supreme Court’s ruling from May 2020 and be upfront and transparent to the public and the courts about its proposed shutdowns, their timelines, and the reasoning behind them.
In Anirudha Basin v. Union of India, the Supreme Court ruling required government officials to specify an exact duration for measures prior to implementing them, a classification of the type of public emergency that is prompting the shutdown, and to implement only the “least intrusive measure” required for a proportional response. Additionally, the Court required the continued evaluation of active shutdowns by a Review Committee every seven days.
Yet, Kris Ruijgrok’s study observes that these guidelines are not being followed by state officials across India. Reasons for this weak enforceability could include overly broad legal terminology (when is or isn’t a security issue a “public emergency”?) and a lack of public transparency (the proceedings and consequences of the shutdown Review Committee meetings are unknown to the public), each of which makes it difficult for the public to hold officials accountable for abuses of power.
To reduce the extent to which internet shutdowns are enacted due to political motivations, Rujigrok also suggests that the officials responsible for suggesting and approving such measures could have a tenure decided by civil service boards, rather than by elected officials or political appointees.
Internet governance measures should also be revised with an eye toward their economic consequences. A lack of reliable internet access or robust legal protections for private ownership of identity and data in India, and Kashmir in particular, is creating an outflow of wealth and talent that may take decades to reverse.
The recently re-introduced Personal Data Protection Bill would continue the steady reduction in Indian digital freedoms by allowing the government overly permissive access to private data. The bill includes a provision declaring that the government need not seek individual consent in cases where data processing is necessary for “the performance of any function under the law.” Legislators seeking actual data protections should prevent the bill from passage and instead introduce a legal framework which protects individuals and businesses from government overreach.
Frequent and unadulterated usage of internet shutdowns, together with policies that strengthen political control of the country’s technology infrastructure, reduce the Indian government’s accountability and legitimacy and have a negative impact on democracy. Through thoughtful and incremental governance improvements that increase independence, transparency, and legally enforceable protections for individuals and businesses, internet governance can become a tool to uphold and strengthen democratic values in India rather than deteriorate them.