censorship

In Parts of India, Internet Shutdowns Are a Fact of Life

Fears of a censored internet are rising, as the government cites fake news and unlawful content in blocking internet access.

People voting in Kashmir general election amid internet shutdowns
Megha Bahree
By Megha Bahree

In 2017, Faakirah Suraiya Irfan, a lawyer and mental health counselor in the northern Indian state of Kashmir, was online with a patient when the internet went down. In the restive state the government frequently, and without any warning, shuts down the internet, so it was not an unusual occurrence. But for Irfan, who was employed by women’s career networking platform Sheroes to offer online counseling services to its members, the interruption couldn’t have come at a worse time. She was in the midst of talking a patient out of suicidal thoughts.

“At that point when you lose the network, you just lose the person,” said Irfan. “I’m talking, and I’m in a flow and trying to get them to open up but then in the middle of that the internet is shut down.”

Irfan quit her job after a year because “the work was through the internet and [owing to the frequent network shutdowns] it just wasn’t working.”

Internet, interrupted

In the last couple of years India has seen a phenomenal increase in the number of people coming online thanks to an explosion of cheap data and affordable smartphones. With more than 500 million people online, it has the second largest number of internet users in the world, after China.

But that growth has been accompanied by the usual sins of abuse, including a rise in online trolls and the spread of fake news. New Delhi has responded with a heavy hand. It has implemented internet shutdowns, banned apps and blocked hundreds of websites. Unsurprisingly, all of this has led to increasing fears of censorship in the world’s largest democracy.

India leads the world in the number of internet shutdowns, with over 100 reported incidents in 2018 alone, according to the latest Freedom On The Net report. The study tracks internet freedom in 65 countries, covering 87 percent of the world’s internet users, and addresses internet access, freedom of expression, and privacy issues. The report followed events between June 2017 and May 2018 and India came in as “partly free” with a score of 43 out of 100.

“There’s a censorship process underway in India,” said Apar Gupta, a lawyer and executive director of Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), an organization that works to defend net neutrality, freedom and privacy. “There’s a complete lack of transparency on what’s being done, why and who’s doing this.”

Shutdown throughout elections

India has just concluded the world’s largest general election with over 900 million people eligible to vote. But ongoing internet shutdowns prevented many people from accessing information as they prepared to cast their ballot.

Over the voting period of April 11 to May 19, the states of Rajasthan, West Bengal and Kashmir reported mobile internet shutdowns. News agency UNI reported that in April, authorities in parts of north Kashmir suspended internet services of all cellular providers in the region as it went to poll. This came two days after a shutdown in another region in Kashmir. The Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a legal services organization that aims to protect digital freedom and which tracks internet shutdowns across the country, found there have been 30 shutdowns in the state so far this year, and 40 across the country.

“There’s a complete lack of transparency on what’s being done, why and who’s doing this.” – Apar Gupta

Shutdowns have a couple of provisions in law, says Gupta. One was passed in 2017 and empowers both the federal and the state government to suspend telecom services, and by extension, internet services. The other – which prohibits public gatherings – dates back to when the British ruled the country. The law was initially used to prevent Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the leader of India’s independence struggle, from organizing protest marches and now is regularly used to restrict internet access. The latter is more frequently used as it allows even local authorities to issue orders for shutdowns without a review process, says Mishi Choudhary, legal director of SFLC.

IFF’s Gupta says these shutdowns “disturb the constitutional protection for free expression.” He adds: “Such a disproportionate action beyond legal doctrine practically disrupts daily life to a severe degree and causes immense hardship. It provokes anxiety among families who talk to each, causes business losses and reduces the political freedom in a country.”

History of services suspended

In India, internet shutdowns began somewhere around 2012, picked up pace from 2015 and peaked in 2018. According to the New Delhi think tank Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations,  the internet was shut down for a total of 16,315 hours between 2012 and 2017, costing the economy approximately $3.04 billion.

Shutdowns can be partial—when a specific class of websites are blocked, like all internet messaging sites—or complete when the entire internet is cut off. Kashmir has the dubious honor of the highest number of shutdowns at 155 to date, according to the SFLC.

The longest shutdown in the country occurred in Kashmir in the summer of 2016 after a local rebel was killed that July. Mobile internet services were suspended for 133 days. While internet services on postpaid connections were restored by November, users with prepaid connections got their internet access back only in January 2017, nearly six months after they had been cut off.

The second longest suspension of internet services took place in Darjeeling in eastern India in June 2017 during a local secessionist agitation. Initially, just the mobile internet services were shut off but within a couple of days, the broadband services were cut off as well, according to SFLC’s tracker. Ultimately there were no internet services in Darjeeling for a total of one hundred days.

Secessionist strike in Darjeeling

A secessionist strike in Darjeeling on 21 July 2017, amid an internet blackout that would last until September 25 Credit: Sandip Saha/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

In both cases, it wasn’t clear who ordered the shutdown, as reflected in local media reports. Typically, shutdowns happen without any warning and in most cases the only explanation offered is that services were suspended “as a precautionary measure to maintain law and order”.

In a country where internet usage has risen dramatically in the last few years, the shutdowns have been “a blunt instrument to bring the digital economy to its knees and deprive the citizens the freedom to communicate,” says Choudhary.

In the summer of 2016, mobile internet in Kashmir was shut off for four months.

India’s data explosion

It was a new telecom entrant that drastically changed the dynamics of the country’s internet access, and brought vast numbers of people online.

In September 2016, Reliance Industries, which is owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, launched 4G network Jio. The network allowed subscribers to use internet plans to make calls, send text messages or browse the internet, and it jump-started the business by offering its services for free initially. Once it started charging for data, its rates were incredibly cheap. A year later it offered low-cost 4G handsets for a refundable security deposit of $22. In 2018 it offered a 4G phone for a third of that price. The strategy helped it gain millions of users, and encouraged the transition from feature phones to smartphones, giving users easy access to the internet.

“The internet shutdowns are a blunt instrument to bring the digital economy to its knees.” – Mishi Choudhary

Rajakumari Dayamenti, a native of Sabantongba village in the north eastern state of Manipur, was one such user. Before Jio set up a cellphone tower in her village, Dayamenti plugged a 10-meter-long USB extension cord into a Huawei modem that she stuck on her rooftop, creating her own mini tower to get online.

Cheap data and the millions of new users also ensured the rise of apps, with entertainment becoming one of the biggest drivers. Users in the big Indian cities have flocked to the same apps as their peers across the globe, including Apple Music, Spotify, TikTok, YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp. In the smaller cities, however, consumers have turned to more local and regional social networking apps like ShareChat and to apps that offer free content like Wynk, Gaana and Hotstar, Star India’s mobile and digital entertainment platform. For news, users turn to Facebook as well as UC News and Dailyhunt.

Disrupting daily life

Lateef Mushtaq, a native of Kashmir who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in technology in Delhi, has experienced internet disruptions countless times, he says. Mushtaq was on a two-week internship in Kashmir last July with state-owned telecom company BSNL to measure internet speeds in different areas when the internet was shut down. The company had to extend the internship to six weeks so he could complete the project.

More recently in February he was home and was scheduled to take an exam online when a suicide bomber blew up a convoy of vehicles carrying security personnel, killing at least 40 in an area called Pulwama. India blamed archenemy and the neighboring state of Pakistan, which denied the allegations.

In the midst of escalating tensions between the two nuclear armed neighbors, the internet speed in Mushtaq’s area was reduced to 2G. But he still had to take his exam, a frustrating experience as he found that the same page was being reloaded after he would submit his responses instead of moving forward to the next set of questions.

“I was submitting my answers, but it kept going back to the previous page,” he says. “I kept answering the same questions again and again.” Mushtaq couldn’t finish the paper and scored 63 percent on it. He says he could’ve done much better.

“In Delhi the internet is never shut down so when it happens to me now, I feel like I’m locked down in a single room without access to the world,” he says.

Finding any available network

While mobile phone services are disrupted frequently, the government occasionally spares the state-run BSNL as the armed forces also use this service. Mushtaq has in the past tried to get a BSNL broadband connection but without success. These connections are prized possessions and Kashmiri teenagers develop hacking skills early in an effort to ride on any broadband network when the government shuts their mobile services down.

“If we hear about a house with broadband, we try to crack the password,” admits Mushtaq. Networks that are secured on WiFi Protected Access (WPA) security standard are easy to crack and there are several apps on the Google play store that help with that, says Mushtaq.

When it’s just some sites or apps have been blocked, Mushtaq and his friends have turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) or proxy services to find a way around the blocks, he says.

Internet shutdowns have cost India’s economy approximately $3.04 billion

But during a complete shutdown none of these workarounds do the trick, as Musthtaq found last year. He had to drive to another part of Kashmir where the internet was still working to check his score for an important entrance exam. Once he got the signal on his phone, he pulled up and sat on the roadside waiting for the website to load.

Similarly, during the 100-day shutdown in Darjeeling, Nirmal Tamang drove his daughter on his motorcycle more than 40 miles to another city where the internet was working so she could fill forms online to apply for undergraduate studies.

Battling ‘unlawful’ content

Rumors or provocative messaging on social media and instant messaging platforms have often been cited as reasons to order internet restrictions.

One critical issue involved the spate of mob attacks in India in the past couple years, fueled by widely circulated messages such as reports of strangers abducting children.

According to an analysis by IndiaSpend, a data journalism website, between January 1, 2017, and July 5, 2018 33 people were killed and at least 99 injured in 69 reported cases of mobs attacking people they suspected were planning to abduct children. In all the cases, the charges turned out to be baseless, with 77 percent of the reports based on fake news that had spread through social media.

With at least 200 million users in India, WhatsApp was one of the mediums through which these rumors spread, and in the aftermath of the violence, came to be a poster child for fake news.

Cover of India Today with headline The Weaponisation of WhatsApp

The cover of India Today on 23 July 2018, following mob lynching driven by rumours circulating on WhatsApp Credit: Nick Kaiser/dpi/Alamy News

New Delhi responded by asking the platform to take responsibility for the messages circulating on it, stating: “Such a platform cannot evade accountability and responsibility especially when good technological inventions are abused by some miscreants who resort to provocative messages which lead to spread of violence.” It added, “WhatsApp must take immediate action to end this menace and ensure that their platform is not used for such mala fide activities.” (In response, last July WhatsApp introduced a limit in India on the number of times a user could forward a message to five. It has now imposed that limit on the rest of the world as well.)

Since then, the Indian government has proposed rules that would force internet companies to remove content from their platforms. In late December, it issued a draft policy of rules intended to curb the misuse of social media and stop the spreading of fake news.

Apar Gupta likens the government’s proposal to “Chinese style censorship that would weaken free expression”

Under the policy, the government has proposed an amendment to Section 79 of India’s IT Act, which would require internet companies to take down content deemed inappropriate by authorities. And if a company receives a complaint from a law enforcement agency, it would be required to trace and report it within 72 hours and to disable that user’s access within 24 hours. Should this amendment go through, it would effectively break the end-to-end encryption that secures user communications on platforms like WhatsApp.

Another recommendation in the draft policy says that internet companies will have to purge their platforms of “unlawful” content. However, the policy doesn’t clearly define what makes something “unlawful”, raising concerns that the clause could be easily abused by authorities to remove any content they wish.

Internet companies and privacy advocates say the new measures, if implemented, pose a threat to free speech and would encourage censorship.

It’s “plainly unconstitutional,” says Gurshabad Grover, policy officer at the Centre for Internet and Society, a nonprofit organization. “By mandating online platforms to detect and remove “unlawful content” through automation, the draft rules shift the burden of judging whether content is legal from the state to private organizations. They will only lead to a great chilling effect on speech, and a regime of online censorship regulated by private parties,” he says.

IFF’s Gupta likens the proposal to “Chinese style censorship that would weaken free expression standards” and his organization has asked for a complete rollback of the proposal

Website censorship on the rise

Large-scale disruptions and intentional slowdowns are not the only tools employed by the government to exert control over the internet. Specific websites and apps are also sporadically blocked.

In April 2017, in the wake of massive student protests in Kashmir, the state government banned access to 22 social media apps including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Snapchat, Skype, Telegram and WeChat, for a month.

Two experts at the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner said the restrictions had “a significantly disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir,” and that they “fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression.”

Students in Kashmir protest against Indian government

Widespread student protests in Kashmir against the Indian government led authorities to block access to 22 social media platforms for a month Credit: Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

Another crackdown targeted the country’s 827 porn websites. In India it is not illegal to watch porn privately and the country has the dubious honor of being the world’s third-biggest porn watching country. Unsurprisingly, the ban didn’t fully succeed.

Within days of the government order, Pornhub, one of the biggest adult content sites, had launched a mirror website for India with an altered web address. Other workarounds in use included VPN or proxy services such as hide.me, hidester, and whoer.net. As per a TorrentFreak report, the search for VPNs shot up in the days after the ban. Users also switched to different browsers such as Alibaba’s UC Browser or the Opera browser where the banned sites could still be accessed.

Privacy advocates say the government’s amends to internet policy, if implemented, would encourage censorship.

Most recently, an Indian court banned China’s Beijing Bytedance Technology Co.-owned music and video app TikTok which had been downloaded by nearly 300 million users in India.

The ban came on the heels of a handful of incidences—a 24-year-old man in the southern city of Chennai reportedly committed suicide on being harassed for posting videos of himself dressed as a woman. Soon after, a member of a local political party of Chennai’s home state of Tamil Nadu declared that the younger generation was hooked on TikTok and getting pushed onto the path of cultural degradation. In response, a state minister promised to seek the federal government’s help to ban the app.

A Tamil Nadu court then banned downloads of the app and forbade the media from showing videos from the app, stating: “The dangerous aspect is that inappropriate contents including language and pornography are being posted in the TikTok App. There is a possibility of children contacting strangers directly […] Without understanding the dangers involved in these kinds of Mobile Apps, it is unfortunate that our children are testing with these Apps.”

After TikTok responded that it was experiencing a daily financial loss of $500,000 and 250 jobs had been put at risk, the ban was eventually lifted, at which point the app’s downloads surged.

No reason for some blocks

However, not all website and app bans are justified, explained or commented upon by the government. In August 2018, for example, the country’s telecom minister informed parliament that since January 2016, the Department of Telecom had asked internet service providers to ban 11,045 websites, news agency Press Trust of India reported. Yet the minister didn’t offer any explanations on why these websites had been targeted.

One site that has been blocked on multiple occasions is the Internet Archive, also known as the Wayback Machine. In the past few months, other sites that have been banned include audio streaming site SoundCloud, encrypted messaging service Telegram, and graphic design website Behance, among others. According to IFF’s Gupta, the reasons for the blocks are not disclosed.

Internet service providers have become the de facto enforcers of the government’s digital concerns.

In January, IFF received several complaints from users that they couldn’t access Reddit. The IFF then invited users to fill an online form to share the list of sites and VPNs that they were unable to access. By late March it had received nearly 200 responses from across the country. Reddit frequently appeared, as did several other major platforms including Spotify, Alexa.com, SoundCloud, Telegram and several VPNs. The largest number of complaints came from those who were Reliance Jio customers, followed by Airtel.

An Airtel Spokesperson said that the company “supports an open internet and does not block any content on its network unless directed by the authorities/court in accordance with the applicable law.”

A Jio spokesperson declined to comment.

To save India’s open internet

Gupta calls these “core net neutrality violations,” as internet service providers are legally obliged to provide equal access to all internet content. This, he says, “ultimately results in a very different version of the internet from the global commons and allows the ISPs, even sometimes political interests, to become gatekeepers to access of information.”

While India has net neutrality rules in place – thanks to a massive campaign in 2015 called Save the Internet – the problem, says Gupta, is a lack of enforcement. “A policy fix is required to enforce net neutrality rules,” he says.

In March, IFF relaunched a campaign for an open internet, asking users to report net neutrality violations and sign a petition asking the Department of Telecom and the country’s telecom regulator to introduce a clear enforcement mechanism. Some of these efforts are showing signs of success already, says Gupta, as the regulator is considering issuing a consultation paper on enforcing net neutrality.

Internet service providers have become the de facto enforcers of the government’s digital concerns.

Kushal Das, an India-based member of the Tor Project and a developer at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, says telecom companies like Jio block all VPNs so they retain insights into users’ browsing preferences that can be useful for advertisers.

“If you use a VPN, Jio will not know your taste in food, et cetera,” says Das. But Tor software can bypass these blocks and the number of Tor users in India has shot up three times since October 2017 to roughly 60,000 now, says Das.

“We should be able to ask people in power why blockades are being implemented,” says Das.

Policy points to restrictions

However, the Narendra Modi-led government has been keen to bring in rules for greater control over data and the internet.

In February, the government proposed a draft national e-commerce policy that sees data as “a collective resource” or a “national asset” that the government holds in trust but which can be auctioned off, like a coal mine. The draft also cautioned that this belongs to Indians and cannot be extended to foreigners.

IFF’s Gupta says the fact that the very framework of its drafting has not been made sufficiently public  is worrying. “It may all seem very dull and dry but … any platform changes, any changes to government policy in India will reflect in demand in Europe and America eventually,” he says, due the large internet user base in India.

For now, in the days after a general election, all these policy proposals are on hold and it’s not clear how soon a new government would turn its attention to internet policies.

The one thing that activists can take some relief in is the fact that the government has acknowledged at least some of the internet shutdowns in the country were implemented without sufficient cause. In December, the Department of Telecom, in response to a request for information filed by IFF, said that “frequent internet suspension orders were being issued by various State governments… even in situations where it is not warranted.” It added that it had asked all state governments to “sensitize concerned officials/agencies” against such actions.

It’s anyone’s guess how long that pause will last.