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Connecting the World 29 March 2017

Digital India Threatened by Internet Shutdowns

Dawit Bekele
By Dawit BekeleRegional Bureau Director, Africa

The government of Narendra Modi has set out ambitious goals for the digitalization of India, through a program called Digital India. It is hard to see this program get fully realized when state or local governments keep turning the Internet off.

Since January 2016, we have tracked that state governments have switched off the Net more than 34 times across India.

Sixty-two incidents of Internet shutdowns across 12 Indian states have been recorded by SFLC.in from 2012 till date.

In the country’s northeast, in Nagaland, there was no Internet service at all from January 30 until February 19 .2017

In Kashmir, there have been 27 shutdowns since 2012, in a region market by long-standing conflicts.

International attention and discourse on this issue have barely touched upon the paradox between these shutdowns and the move of an entire democratic country towards a connected economy, with the vision of delivering an essential services to a digital world.

In a contemporary economy, shutting down Internet service is like closing all the roads and shutting down all the banks at once.

The demonetization effort by the GoI undertaken in November 2016 is speeding adoption of universal payment systems, digital wallets, etc. that rely on the Internet and always-on connectivity. When tens of millions of customers are suddenly deprived of connectivity, an artificial economic disaster is imposed on large swaths of the population. In a report issued by the Brookings Institute in 2016, it was estimated that Internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion last year. India topped this list having lost $968 million owing to frequent shutdowns.

We need more and better data to measure these shutdowns and their impact.

Already, as my organization SFLC.in has documented in its automated web-based tracker of Internet shutdowns in India, http://www.internetshutdowns.in/, shutdowns in one region of the country are rapidly reflected in human suffering elsewhere. Students in Delhi cannot receive remittances from their parents in Kashmir, and the result is hunger. Workers caught in areas of shutdown cannot message their employers to explain their absence from work, and might lose their jobs. Surgeons cannot access patient information before surgery and have to devise innovative ways to do their jobs.

Our tracker has freely available code under free software and free culture license, to make it easy for organizations around the world to build upon our work and use it to reflect shutdowns in their regions.

SFLC.in stands strong with the message that the Internet is essential for the holistic socio-economic and cultural development of the country. The Indian economy and society cannot afford the use of Internet “kill switches” across Indian States. If we are to have the promise of digital empowerment though Digital India, shutdowns cannot become the new “normal”.

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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