Censorship casts a shadow over digital freedom in India
Indian flag waving over Red fort in the Indian capital New Delhi (Archives/AP)

With frequent interruptions and excessive censorship, digital freedom in India is being further restricted, despite the current government’s initiative to expand the country’s digital footprint.

On March 12 of each year, Reporters Without Borders celebrates the International Day to Combat Electronic Censorship.

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In a statement Geeta Seshu, co-founder of the FreeSpeech Collective (based in New Delhi), said internet blackouts in India are usually imposed for “ridiculous reasons”.

“The internet was cut off in parts of West Bengal (Northern India) two days ago, to curb cheating in school exams (..) Excessive regulations and censorship affect digital freedoms in the country,” Sisu added.

Geeta describes the internet cuts in India as “arbitrary” because they do not follow any legal rules, and on the surface, they appear as a measure to address issues related to law and order, but in reality, they are used to tighten control over citizens.

Commenting on the internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir, Geeta Seshu said: “The unprecedented shutdown of all communications in Kashmir on the eve of the abolition of Article 370 in August 2019 led to a media blackout and paralysis of all media.”

According to research by UK-based privacy and security research firm Top10VPN, India has suffered the world’s biggest economic impact in 2020 due to the internet being cut off.

Internet cuts, social media closures, and government restrictions on internet speed cost the global economy $5.5 billion in 2021, according to the same company data.

According to a report by an Indian parliamentary committee, telecom operators in India are losing 24.5 million rupees (about $321,000) per hour in every area where the internet is cut off or its speed is restricted.

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India’s Internet Lockdown Tracker records show that since 2012, the country has experienced more than 500 internet cuts, with the highest rate of cuts occurring between 2018 and 2020.

Digital illiteracy

Geeta called for the need to enhance electronic awareness and digital literacy, to deal with issues such as fake news, which are often the reason behind government cuts to the Internet.

She added, “A mature democratic state should trust its citizens and gain their self-confidence on these issues, instead of leaving them in a media blackout.”

Torsha Sarkar, a researcher for law and technology policy at the Center for Internet and Society, told that while internet blackouts are increasing in India, there are some important developments that deserve attention.

In a report titled “Suspension of Telecom Services/Internet and its Impact”, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology of India called for setting standards and establishing robust mechanisms for the shutdown process.

Torsha Sarkar said, “The current law relating to internet cuts has been challenged before the Guwahati High Court (..) The developments after this decision will have a significant impact on the internet cuts in India.”

And she explained, “The cutting off of the Internet affects companies, workers in temporary jobs who rely on the Internet for their work, and students, especially during the implementation of the remote study, following the outbreak of the Corona epidemic in the world.”

Gurshabad Grover, an independent internet researcher, also called for a comprehensive judicial review, before any internet cuts were implemented.

Gurshabad Grover assured that judicial reviews would reduce the frequency of internet cuts in India.

The Indian government maintains that internet shutdown orders are issued due to the state of emergency or public safety in the country.

India’s Ministry of Communications, addressing Parliament, also said that state governments responsible for public order are suspending telecom services “to maintain public safety”.

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