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Measuring the Internet 19 January 2024

What Happens When the Internet Shuts Down?

In early May 2023, in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, the foundational rhythm of life was disrupted by the outbreak of inter-community violence, followed swiftly by a government-mandated Internet shutdown.

For seven long months, the residents of Manipur lost their ability to engage in regular activities such as web-based employment, online healthcare, and distance learning. They also had to contend with brutal ethnic clashes with no connection to the outside world and no way to stand up for what they believed in. The Internet’s absence was palpable.

Saadia Azim, a public policy expert leading the delivery of digital public service systems and working with the government of West Bengal, India, said, “The Internet provides a space where everyone can be equal. In India, even local merchants who cannot read or write use the Internet to make and receive payments. When you take that away, you cut people off from basic services, threaten their livelihoods, deepen the digital divide, and inevitably worsen conflict.”

Internet Shutdowns Do More Harm Than Good

The government declared this Internet blackout would help restore peace more quickly and curb misinformation. But the shutdown did the opposite, cutting people’s access to essential public services and leading to unspeakable chaos. Those whose businesses depended on the Internet suffered income losses that exposed them to risks of homelessness and starvation

False reports still spread that could not be verified or countered while the rest of India and the world were in the dark about the violations of civil liberties happening there.

“The loss of any shutdown can be life-critical,” said Amrita Choudhury, President of Internet Society Delhi and Director of the Cyber Café Association of India (CCAOI), working in public and tech policy.

With escalating violence and no outside intervention, countless people lost their lives, and communities were silenced. Even those indirectly impacted by the violence were affected.

“A close friend had just moved to Manipur from Delhi, and after the shutdown began, I couldn’t get through to her for nearly three months,” said Saadia.

“It was difficult, not knowing if she was safe. She couldn’t use her phone or social media, things we take for granted. When we got in touch again, our bond of 30 years had been shaken. She felt the rest of the world wasn’t doing enough to help. And she was now too afraid to talk.”

The Impact on Marginalized Communities

When the government finally agreed to lift the Internet ban, they only did so partially. Some areas in Manipur still lack full connectivity. 

Saadia explained, “Some border zones still only have mobile Internet and are subject to curfew-imposed service restrictions. But it’s the people in the far-fetched areas who need the help of the Internet the most. These are the communities cut off from physical access to public services.”

“The gender minorities wing of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Manipur’s capital, for example, remains completely inaccessible,” said Saadia. “The Internet shutdown led to a cessation of operations at the institute and disrupted vital connections within the gender minority community, impacting their communication and mutual support systems. Seven months later, these individuals still can’t reach their healthcare center designed for their specific needs and safety.”

Amrita said, “Whenever there’s a situation such as this, it’s women, minorities, or marginalized communities, such as people living with disabilities, who are affected most,” she said. “In some parts of the world, the Internet is the only place they can safely share their voices.”

Advocating for the Importance of the Internet

Yet both Amrita and Saadia maintain that whenever an Internet shutdown is exposed, there is an opportunity. “It’s a chance for the global community to become more aware of and speak out about how vital the Internet is to our everyday lives, especially in times of conflict.”

Saadia believes there is reason to be hopeful about the future of Internet access. “People are talking. We are working to build technology to deliver public services during these blackouts and developing solutions to prevent further shutdowns.”

In June 2023, to raise awareness about shutdowns and encourage governments not to cut their populations off from this essential resource, the Internet Society launched its NetLoss calculator. Hosted on Internet Society Pulse, it measures each country’s economic damage caused by Internet shutdowns, including foreign direct investment (FDI) and gross domestic product (GDP) loss, changes in unemployment rates, and inflation.

“I’m an optimist,” Amrita said. “In countries that aspire to be developed, like India, the value of the Internet is clear to both the government and the people. We want to be a digital nation. It’s just a matter of understanding that a shutdown is not the right solution to managing these situations. India isn’t alone in this. This is a universal conversation amplified here because of our large population.”

Help Us Deliver on the Internet’s Promise

The Internet has provided immeasurable opportunities and improvements to our daily lives. It’s helped us stay connected when a global pandemic kept us apart, expanded our opportunities for work and education, and allowed us to explore corners of the world that were once a distant dream. For some, it is more than all of this combined. It is a lifeline.

Image copyright: ©Leeder Bose on Unsplash

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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