Human Rights Watch raps India for ’20 Internet Shutdowns in 2017′

Protesters from the Anonymous India group of hackers wear Guy Fawkes masks as they protest against laws they say gives the government control over censorship of internet usage in Mumbai, June 9, 2012. Anonymous India is associated with the internationa hacker group Anonymous whose previous targets have included high profile targets. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash (INDIA - Tags: SOCIETY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

India received an earful from the Human Rights Watch, who in a recent report stated that the nation has shut down the Internet in various regions 20 times in the first five months of this year. Four blackouts have taken place in this month alone. All blackouts happened in states where violent protests took place.

The report highlights a drastic jump from 2016, when 31 shutdowns were recorded whereas, in 2012 only three shutdowns were recorded.

“State governments have imposed 20 Internet shutdowns so far this year, in four states in June alone. Shutdowns in response to campaigns on social media and mobile mass messaging applications spreading false and even incendiary information have frequently been disproportionate. The authorities have failed to follow legal procedures, undermined stated objectives of preventing rumors or panic and ordered unnecessary shutdowns such as to prevent cheating in examinations,” the report stated.

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Asserting that arbitrary and overbroad Internet shutdowns violate India’s obligations under international human rights law. The report highlighted how in July 2016, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning measures by countries to intentionally prevent or disrupt online access and information calling for free speech protections under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

A report by the Washington DC-based, Brookings Institute estimated that India lost over US $ 968 million between July 2015 and June 2016 because of Internet shutdowns. The HRW cited out the following recent Internet shutdowns in its report:

  • On June 5, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Maharashtra suspended mobile internet services in Nashik district for a few hours after protests by farmers turned violent.
  • On June 6, the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh suspended Internet services in six districts following farmers’ protests for higher rates for their produce.
  • On June 7, the People’s Democratic Party-led government in Jammu and Kashmir state suspended mobile internet services in the Kashmir Valley after the killing of a civilian by security forces. This was the fifth time the state government had suspended the mobile internet or broadband services in 2017 in a questionable attempt to prevent rumors from fueling violent clashes between government forces and street protesters.
  • On June 8, the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh shut down Internet services for two days in Saharanpur district after authorities arrested a Dalit leader following violent clashes between Dalits and members of a dominant caste. The government had also temporarily shut down mobile Internet services in the district two weeks earlier.

In case of the recent Internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir, the government said at the time that the ban was necessary because social media services were “being misused by anti-national and antisocial elements.”

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“Indian authorities’ concerns over the misuse of the Internet and social media should not be the default option for preventing social unrest. The lack of transparency and failure to explain these shutdowns only further the perception that they are meant to suppress non-violent reporting and criticism of the government.” said HRW’s South Asia director, Meenakshi Ganguly.

Advising that instead of fully shutting down networks, authorities can use social media to discourage violence and restore public order, the report cited an example from September 2016, when riots broke out in Bengaluru and a social media team of the police used Twitter to send out regular announcements on the law and order situation to counter rumors and answer queries from concerned citizens.

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