Young Bites. Dated: 1/14/2020 11:55:14 AM

MOHAMMAD IRSHAD In today’s world, the internet is the lifeblood of society and communication. It not only enables individuals to connect and communicate with each other while eroding physical boundaries, it also provides a corridor to generate, broadcast and disseminate information within seconds to any distant place. Consequently, it has dramatically transformed the contours of our personal, social, political and economic life. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in a report on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression 2011, in chapter V notes, “The Internet, as a medium by which the right to freedom of expression can be exercised, can only serve its purpose if States assume their commitment to developing effective policies to attain universal access to the Internet.” In countries like Estonia, France and Costa Rica, access to the internet has been declared as a fundamental right. In the Shirin RK vs State of Kerala case in 2019, the Kerala High Court maintained that the right to access the internet is a fundamental right. The court further mentioned that access to the internet is an inalienable part of the right to privacy and right to education under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Unremitting and equal opportunity for participation in the digital territory must be pronounced as a prime and pressing necessity in the digital age. Digital media such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube with minimal constraints emerged as alternative spaces for people to voice the actual concerns of citizens. Further, reliance on such channels diminishes the authority of the mediocre in the mainstream media, that masquerades as a champion of citizen’s rights. On its website, the Digital India initiative notes that to digitally empower its citizens the need for digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen must be fulfilled. Under the nine pillars of Digital India, the Universal Access to Mobile Connectivity, Internet Access Programme and Information for All, are majorly highlighted. The mounting pace of internet shutdown nevertheless makes us ponder about the seriousness of the objective envisioned for Digital India. The Government had launched it to advance a pan-digital character of India, however, ironically, the Government itself deprives the digital citizenry of accessing the internet. When a large part of the country was made to gear up for a Digital and online India, Kashmir was deliberately pushed to remain under continuous digital darkness for 152 days. Having discussed that, the question then arises why is the Government blacking out internet across the country? The simple answer is that in the name of maintaining “law and order” it is an intentional move to neutralise all kinds of demonstrations and protests, to not let civil society and university students criticize, plan and assemble for peaceful protests/ gatherings/demonstrations. Internet shutdown is defined by Access Now (AN) — a non-profit that works for digital rights around the world — as when someone, usually a government, intentionally disrupts the internet or mobile apps to control what people say or do. Shutdowns are also sometimes called “blackouts” or “kill switches.” According to a report published by AN, the number of internet shutdowns by the country from January to July, 2019, India tops the list with total 80 blackouts. The report distinctly indicates that every year there is a continuous alarming rise in internet shutdowns in India as well as across the world, mainly in Asian and African regions. However, the legal services organisation, records that between 2013-2015 accesses to the internet was blocked only nine times across four Indian States. Financial aspects of internet shutdown cannot be spurned. The Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), New Delhi, conducted a study, prepared and released a report about the impact of internet shutdown upon the Indian economy on April 25, 2018. The report maintains that during 2012 and 2017, the economy suffered a loss of approximately $3.04 billion. The figure might exceed $11 to 12 billion if we add internet shutdown in 2018 and 2019. Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill 2019, considers the necessity of the collective culture that helps to foster a free and fair digital economy. Considering the scale of data on internet shutdown in India, the digital economy and the objective of Digital India will merely result in another chimaera for Indians. Right after the anti-CAA protests flared up in Assam and other northeastern States, internet was completely shut. In Assam, the internet was shut down for more than a week. However, due to the timely intervention of the Guwahati High Court services were restored. Internet services were shut down seven times due to the anti-CAA protests in dozens of districts of Uttar Pradesh (UP), including Lucknow, Ghaziabad, Prayagraj and Kanpur. In Delhi-NCR, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh internet was suspended in limited parts for less than a day on various days in December. This is paving the way for digital poverty, discrimination and divide. Surprisingly there seems to be no abrupt definite move from the Government to bridge this widening chasm to justify the aims of Digital India. According to Internet Right (2011) — an initiative of the Digital Empowerment Foundation — development deficits and divide cannot be bridged if information access and services are denied. Hence, restricting somebody from accessing the internet is a gross violation of human rights and undermines one's right to information/access to information.


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