India Turns Off the Internet

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S1: So talk for.

S2: Republic Day in New Delhi started off like every other Republic Day, Pranab Dixit lives in New Delhi.

S3: He covers tech for BuzzFeed.

S2: It was a nice sunny day for a change. We’ve been having a harsh winter.

S3: Republic Day falls on January 26 and it honors India’s constitution, which went into effect on that day in 1950. It’s a big deal and this is the main battle tank of the Indian army. Schools and businesses are closed. There are huge parades through Delhi. Airplanes and helicopters fly overhead, soldiers march in formation and Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks on.

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S2: So the parade went well. The prime minister was there and so was everybody else. But as that was happening, thousands and thousands of farmers decided that they were going to storm in on that day.

S3: The farmers had gathered from all around India to protest new agricultural laws that they say hurt workers. They’ve been camped outside the centre of the city and on Republic Day, they went in, some on foot, others driving tractors, and they made their way toward police barricades.

S2: So they sort of breached police barricades and stormed the city and eventually ended up at the Red Fort, which is this big historical monument.

S3: Yeah, it’s beautiful. It dates back to the Moghul era, 17th century. I feel like it’s one of those iconic Delhi landmarks. Well, what did all of this look like?

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S2: Some people compared it to the storming of the U.S. Capitol. I think it’s I think it’s apples and oranges. It was thousands and thousands of people perched on the ramparts of the Red Fort, which is, you know, it’s red, like it’s literally red. It’s this very distinctive structure. And you see, like, all these thousands of people sitting along those red walls shouting slogans and the police trying to stop them. It was a lot of crazy pictures and videos that were floating around on the Internet and the news during the protests.

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S3: At least one person, a protester, was killed. Some eyewitnesses on the scene told journalists that the man had been shot by police, but the police said that the man’s tractor had overturned, that he died in the crash. A few days later, criminal charges were filed against nine journalists who had reported that the death was a shooting. What’s it like to be in Delhi right now? What does it feel like?

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S4: It’s scary. I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures of these massive concrete barricades and iron spikes that the government has put in the highways to stop the farmers from entering the city. It’s looking like, you know, some people said this is like the Indian India China border looks like, but it’s happening in in the African capital.

S3: And then as pictures of this were flying around online and journalists and activists were tweeting and posting about it, the government turned off the Internet, just completely shut down mobile service in the districts around Delhi where protesters have been gathering for months.

S5: The government said they did it for public safety today on the show. India’s Internet shutdowns, how the Modi government is trying to control what Indians can know and say online and how the world is watching. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to What Next, TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick with us.

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S3: Imagine a huge news event, maybe the protests in the street after George Floyds death, your first instinct is to pull out your phone and look for more information, but you can’t. That’s what was happening in Delhi. I asked Pranab what it was like to try to find out more about the farmer protests after Republic Day.

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S4: Depending on where in the world, specifically in parts of the city where rioting broke out, you would not have been able to access Internet on your cell phone, which is how most people in the country access the Internet here. So when you cut off people’s Internet on their cell phones, you sort of leave them with not many other ways to find out what’s happening.

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S3: I was struck by a statement from the Ministry of Home Affairs saying that turning off the Internet was, and I’m quoting here, In the interest of maintaining public safety and averting public emergency, what were they trying to prevent?

S2: The government’s version always is we want to prevent rumors from spreading. We want to prevent fake news. We want to turn off the Internet to control the situation. That’s the government’s version. On the other hand, the people for whom the Internet is blocked off see that this is done so that we can get information we can’t collaborate in, like WhatsApp groups. We can’t access Twitter, we can’t access YouTube, or we don’t have any legit ways to find out what’s happening around us. And it really harms anybody who’s trying to come together really and protest.

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S3: It’s not just about turning off the Internet in those specific places that you mentioned where there were riots or where there were a lot of farmers gathering. But it was also about blocking specific content. I’m thinking specifically about some Twitter accounts that were blocked, ones that mention the farmers, multiple journalists. What happened?

S2: So a lot of us woke up on Tuesday morning India time and realized that a bunch of Twitter accounts and at that time it wasn’t possible to know how many. There were some very prominent Twitter accounts, one of which belonged to the caravan, which is an investigative journalism magazine that frequently writes stories that sort of hold powerful people and corporations to account.

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S3: I’ve heard it compared to The New Yorker of India.

S2: People say, yes, it’s sort of the only magazine in India that does that kind of journalism. So one of the accounts that you couldn’t access from India anymore on Twitter was the caravan’s account. There were other accounts. All of them really belong to people who were very vocally critical of of of of the Modi government, really. And the notice that you got on Twitter when you tried to access any of these accounts was this account has been withheld in India in response to a legal demand and everybody freaked out. It was like the caravans down, the caravans down, and all these accounts were down for about six hours.

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S3: If you’re listening to this in the US, it may seem almost incomprehensible that in a democracy, the government could just turn off the Internet. But in India, there’s a law on the books from the British colonial era that allows the government to do just that, to tell the providers to shut things down. And that’s not all. There’s another law much more recent that lets the government block some Internet content like those Twitter accounts.

S4: And this is a controversial law that sort of gives the government power to ask these platforms to take off any content that they deem is a threat to like national security or national integrity.

S2: It’s really broad terms like that because it could be applied to anything really. And one of the most controversial things about this law is that the platform who is served and noticed using this law is not allowed to disclose the notice. So we tried asking Twitter hate, like what did the order see? And they said, we can’t show it to you because we would be violating the law. So not only this is a law that sort of allows the government to tick off things on the Internet.

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S3: It also mandates the people who receive the order to, like, not tell you what the actual orders, platforms like Twitter are caught between the government and the huge number of users in India who are key to growing their business. Twitter first took the magazine’s account down, then six hours later put it back up, deciding not to comply with the government’s order.

S4: This is a very large market. They have serious business interests here. They have put in a substantial amount of money to sort of bring all these millions and millions of Indians online and hopefully use their services. But also they are increasingly faced with the government that is just becoming more and more targeted and finding that they have to sort of toe the line and do this balance. The gap between how they operate in the US versus how they operate here with local laws that may not live up to like freedom of speech and human rights standards in the US.

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S1: We’ll be right back.

S3: If it seems like you’ve heard some part of this story before, it’s because you have no other country shuts down the Internet as much as India, and shutdowns have become a hallmark of the current government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018, there were 134 shutdowns in India, according to the Internet shutdown tracker. The next highest number was Pakistan with 12. And there’s no place that has felt the effect of shutdowns as much as Kashmir, the disputed northern region on India’s border with Pakistan. Kashmir is majority Muslim Modi’s government Hindu nationalist. For years, the government has claimed it turns off the Internet in Kashmir to help stop Muslim insurgencies and quell violence for more than a year. There was there was no way you couldn’t get online in Kashmir, Pranav reported there in early 20-20 after the Internet had been off for eight months.

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S4: Eventually, they started opening it up and even then it was not like fast broadband and high speed LTE. It was it was a very troubled 2G Internet, which you couldn’t really do anything with. I mean, I reported from Kashmir why the shutdown was still on and I couldn’t even open like my emails. So I don’t even know what what you can do with it.

S3: When I think about how that must have affected living in the pandemic, could people in Kashmir get any reliable information about the coronavirus online?

S4: For the longest time, they didn’t they could not access anything online. And I think initially, like the explosion of cases in Kashmir in particular, was pretty significant. I don’t know if you can directly attribute that to like people not being able to access the Internet, but it was just one more way that they were sort of being held back compared to the rest of the country.

S3: While Kashmiris may have grown accustomed to Internet shutdowns over the years, in twenty nineteen, the rest of the country experienced them firsthand. Protests broke out in response to a new citizenship law from the Modi government, which essentially fast tracked Indian citizenship to a lot of people from South Asia except Muslims.

S4: And that was the first time that citizenship was being run through like this religious filter, which is why it was so controversial and people came out on the streets to protest against it.

S3: All across the country, the protests spread to 17 Indian cities and for the first time, the Internet was shut off in the capital.

S2: It’s funny because, you know, those of us who live in sort of like the other big cities, like in Delhi or Mumbai or Bangalore, we never expected that we would have Internet shutdowns in our cities because, you know, we like the rest of the world, we take the Internet for granted.

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S4: Like, can you imagine? It’s like suddenly like there was no Internet in Washington, D.C., like people would be melting down pretty much. So increasingly, we’ve seen more and more Internet shutdowns moving from these sort of far flung corners of the country to actually coming to like the national capital.

S3: Well, it seems to me like shutting down the Internet is something that the Modi government. Finds to be useful for them, why do you think they rely on that?

S2: It’s part of a larger playbook of stamping down on dissent and stamping down on critics. Freedom of the press has been shrinking more and more over the last few years. We see more and more journalists being jailed. We see comedians, some of whom have been critical of the government being thrown in jail for jokes that they haven’t even made. So shutting down the Internet fits into this larger pattern of just just sort of stamping out dissent.

S3: I’m thinking about sort of three waves of shutdowns. If you think about what happened in Kashmir and then you think about the shutdowns around the Citizenship Act and now around the farmer protests, it seems like in the past some of these shutdowns have targeted Muslims, but the farmer related shutdowns are broader than that.

S2: Yeah, I think unlike the previous protests, I think it’s been one of the reasons why they have been they have continued for so long as there’s nobody to demonize. Right. There’s not like an obvious Muslim community behind it. In fact, farmers, most of whom belong to the Sikh religion in the country, have long been seen as very patriotic. There’s lots of seats that serve in the Indian army and protect the borders.

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S4: And it’s hard to demonize anybody when it comes to the families.

S3: But protests, really, which is why I think the government has been fumbling a little bit now with social media companies pushing back and global attention on the protests, the Modi government’s tactics are under an international microscope. What do you think this means for the Modi government? Is it too early to know?

S4: I think it’s too early to know. The Modi government is still here for three more years. It’s a government that enjoys a lot of majority support, almost no matter what it does. Really, it’s a government that is truly a master of managing the narrative. In this particular case, they seem to have done a bad job of that. But but otherwise, they’re really good at projecting this image of being a very powerful and decisive government. What it really means for the Modi government is really just the more they crack down, the more the rest of the world sees what they’re doing. And I think the sort of long term consequences of that could be substantial.

S3: These protests started with farmers. And I guess I wonder with. Adding in the Internet, shut downs and the Twitter blocking and the attention that this has gotten from around the world as it’s become about about something more than these agricultural laws.

S4: Yeah, for sure. I mean, over time, I think these protests have really become about dissenting against an increasingly authoritarian government and everything that it stands for.

S6: In a way that’s healthy, because at least it’s like the naked face of authoritarianism sort of coming out, at least like no one’s pretending anymore. It’s not just about families anymore. I think I think the protests have become about something much larger.

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S7: Fanatics. Thank you very much. Thank you so much for having me.

S8: Pranav Dixit is a reporter for BuzzFeed News. And that’s it for us today, TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and edited by Allison Benedikt and Torie Bosch. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate podcasts.

S7: TBD is part of a larger what next family.

S8: And it’s also part of Future Tense Partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And you can check out Future Tense is Free Speech Project, which you can find at Slate Dotcom Future Tense. If you want to learn more about the farmer protests, check out Slate writer Nitish Powers December piece.

S7: What’s driving the biggest protest in world history? Have a good weekend.

S8: Mary Harris will be back on Monday. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.