India’s new digital rules are bad news for democracy

In 2014, ahead of the general election that would sweep him into power, Narendra Modi said he had a dream. He envisioned, he said, “a Digital India, where access to information knows no barriers.”

In the seven years since, a number of obstacles have emerged. India’s broadband speed is now among the slowest in the world and internet penetration is below 50 per cent, with a stark digital divide becoming clearer in a world forced online by COVID-19. The country needs to invest in this form of connectivity. As the number of internet users continues to swell, the value creation offered by the digital-services industry promises a huge economic windfall, because a more connected population is more empowered and has greater access to knowledge, skills and commerce. As such, wide internet access can be a major boost for a country’s standard of living. But technical infrastructure is not the only limitation. Problems also come from the government’s incessant wielding of internet-shutdown powers to constrict and damage internet freedom.

The data compiled by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a Delhi-based digital rights group, show that the number of internet shutdowns has jumped from three in 2012 to five in 2013, six in 2014, 14 in 2015, 31 in 2016, 79 in 2017, 134 in 2018, 106 in 2019 and 132 in 2020. Between Modi’s election in 2014 and 2017, 79 internet shutdowns were due to the BJP and its allies at the national, state or district levels. Since 2016, every year India has resorted to internet shutdowns more than any other country worldwide, for two official reasons — public safety and public order. In 2017, the government amended the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 to specify that the law now allowed “the temporary suspension of telecom services”.

In 2019, internet shutdowns were used to complicate communication among protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Bill — even though their demonstrations were legal and peaceful. In January, access was restricted seven times on the main sites of the ongoing farmers’ protests. Shutdowns are an effective way to control the narrative by curbing communication between protestors, and preventing them from disseminating information about their cause online. That is to say the shutdowns are an excellent tool for a government that wants to suppress dissent.

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