Future Tense

Grappling With India’s Internet Shutdowns From Afar

India’s relentless digital repression tactics should be a wake-up call for those of us invested in the future of the world’s largest democracy.

A crowd of students waiting in an office
In this photo taken on Nov. 26, Kashmiri students wait for their turn to use the internet at the Divisional Commissioner’s office in Srinagar. Tauseef Mustafa/Getty Images

A few months ago, a friend emailed me an article about India’s pervasive internet shutdowns and asked: “Have you been keeping up with what’s going on in India? What do your parents think?”

I replied with a few bland sentences, but the email touched a nerve. Or, rather, two nerves: It reaffirmed my position as an outsider, an honorary citizen of India, and it tapped into my feelings of anger, sadness, and helplessness regarding India’s recent assault on free speech, one of its core democratic principles.

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Growing up in the States with Indian immigrant parents involves straddling two worlds, two identities­­—the cultures and values of the world’s two largest democracies. Inherent in this dual identity is a keen appreciation that the United States and India are intrinsically linked. Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance movement inspired Martin Luther King Jr.’s Montgomery bus boycotts. Both countries’ Constitutions begin with the words “We the people.”

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Yet India’s increasing reliance on information control to quell dissent should be a wake-up call for those of us invested in the future of the world’s largest democracy. India’s internet shutdowns—106 in 2019—go far beyond those of other nations.

The most well-known internet shutdown in India began on Aug. 5, 2019, in Jammu and Kashmir, the day the Indian government revoked the state’s 70-year-old autonomous status. Fearing revolt, authorities ordered the Muslim-majority state offline immediately—preventively blocking all internet and cell service. Government officials also claimed that the shutdown would “curb the spread of false information.” According to the Software Freedom Law Center, Jammu and Kashmir has experienced 180 internet shutdowns since 2012. By contrast, just one shutdown has occurred in Hyderabad, my parents’ hometown in southern India, possibly due to its robust IT hub.

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Indian law allows the government to block internet access during times of unlawful assembly or anticipated unrest. However, the law also states that an internet shutdown cannot amount to an “abuse of power.” Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Kashmir Times, mounted a legal challenge to the Jammu and Kashmir shutdown, and in January, the Indian Supreme Court issued its ruling. The court expressed skepticism about the shutdown and ordered a government review. The ruling did not directly instruct that the communications blockade be lifted, but it said wholesale internet disruptions are a “drastic measure” that the government can utilize only if “necessary and unavoidable.” The court also said that the government must seek less intrusive remedies before moving to a broad suspension of internet service. Additionally, shutdowns must be of a “temporary duration,” undergo review by a committee, and be made publicly available.

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On March 4, the government restored internet access in Jammu and Kashmir, but officials continue to issue orders restricting speeds to 2G. On April 9, the Foundation for Media Professionals filed a petition to the Indian Supreme Court to reinstate uninterrupted 4G services, claiming that it was critical for allowing communications to continue during COVID-19. On April 27, authorities in Jammu and Kashmir extended the ban on high-speed services until May 11, citing a “spurt in terrorist violence” as Indian and Pakistani soldiers recently exchanged cross-border fire. But the public health consequences for shutdowns and slowdowns are grave. Doctors cannot implement telemedicine initiatives or even download essential documents outlining intensive care management.

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Before the pandemic, some Kashmiris who could afford to do so flew to other cities to check email and communicate with loved ones. Others were not so lucky. Online-based businesses floundered. Students missed deadlines to apply to undergraduate and Ph.D. programs abroad. State authorities also restricted the use of virtual private networks to bypass the shutdown.

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As an American with enormous privilege, it is difficult to imagine the day to day helplessness and anxiety mired in a seemingly indefinite internet shutdown. But I will never forget this observation from Furquaan, a Kashmiri resident who told BuzzFeed News: “When they restored it partially in phases over the last few weeks, it felt like they were throwing us crumbs and expecting us to be grateful.”

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Even beyond the Jammu and Kashmir shutdowns. India’s digital freedom clampdowns have escalated in recent years. A telling instance occurred in 2016, when the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution categorizing internet shutdowns as a human rights violation. India joined Russia and China-led amendments that challenged a “human rights-based approach” for internet access to ensure freedom of expression.

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Meanwhile, the country’s assault on free expression and association goes beyond the shutdowns. Police deploy facial recognition software at protests and continue to develop a national facial recognition database, which chills freedom of association. A Disney subsidiary blocked access to a Last Week Tonight With John Oliver clip critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. And on Dec. 19, in a move many deemed unimaginable, the Delhi police ordered internet service providers to cut off access in parts of the nation’s capital during protests, leaving many of Delhi’s 21 million residents offline for four hours.

U.S. lawmakers have criticized the Jammu and Kashmir shutdown. Members of the Senate India Caucus expressed concerns about the country’s deviation from its core democratic principles. In February, a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proclaimed: “India has now imposed the longest-ever shut down by a democracy, disrupting access to medical care, business, and education for seven million people.” These official condemnations are a good start, but more can be done.

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In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced an internet freedom policy that attempted to thread the needle between human rights and broader U.S. foreign policy objectives. Critics maintained that while her agenda understood the internet’s double-edged sword, it was deferential to U.S. strategic partners and overly cautious toward China’s authoritarian approach.

But much has changed since then, and we need new initiatives. The U.S. should start by acknowledging the internet freedom missteps on our own soil, like inadequate data privacy protections and the digital divide among them—inequities magnified by COVID-19. A strategic internet freedom agenda must continually and transparently debate openness and security online. Only then will America’s economic competitiveness and national security be strengthened.

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From there, the United States must exert strong leadership to establish international norms and a code of conduct for internet governance. Russia and China have become adept at influencing global institutions like the United Nations to reshape resolutions and working groups in support of authoritarian controls online. On Dec. 17, Chinese state media praised India and its sovereign right to conduct internet shutdowns. The U.S. should pursue and promote an alternative, attractive model of internet governance that promotes and celebrates free speech.

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Next, Congress should increase funding for digital infrastructure projects to circumvent restrictions, specifically during large-scale network disruptions. Secure development projects led by locals on the ground will improve information connectivity, digital literacy, and gender-equitable access. Beyond basic circumvention technologies, projects should also incorporate tools for user anonymity, emphasize privacy and security with encrypted communications, and increased mobile access. This also serves broader foreign policy goals. The United States’ current absence in the region paves the way for a growing digital footprint from China through its far-reaching “Digital Silk Road.” To make this work, the U.S. must prioritize and reinvigorate collaboration with foreign partners, like the Freedom Online Coalition. Such partnerships are crucial for information sharing, diplomatic cooperation, and engagement with civil society and the private sector to push back against things like prolonged internet shutdowns.

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Five months into 2020, the Indian government has imposed seven internet shutdowns, each in a different state. When I talk to other second-gen friends about these digital repression tactics, I realize I am not alone in my anxiety about the country’s future. But many of us born and raised in the States feel a disconnect from our parents’ homeland, or that as Americans we don’t have a right to talk about India’s societal issues. (Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act is one show addressing this tension.)

But two things can be true at once. Our unique dual identities are embodied in the values and histories we carry with us each and every day. But our unbreakable bonds with India and the U.S. are also coupled with a duty to speak out when our countries refuse to live up their founding values.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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