Internet shutdowns are state-enforced disruptions of internet access aimed at controlling the flow of information. These disruptions include a complete blockage, a reduction in speed, or content blockage, and can be enforced over a couple of hours or over many months and may take place in a particular locality or throughout an entire state. They may also be a part of a more structural and complete communication blockage. It is not uncommon for governments to misuse internet shutdowns under the guise of protecting public order and national security in order to silence critical voices. The use of internet shutdowns has proliferated over the entire globe, but nowhere has the internet been shut down more often than in India.
This report examines the relationship between internet shutdowns and challenges to the work of human rights defenders in India. The first case study looks to the 213-day shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, then goes on to examine other shutdowns in India (particularly those put in place in response to public protests or unrest). The analysis for this report is based on desk research and on 25 interviews conducted with human rights defenders from across 11 states in India.
The findings of the report are stark: internet shutdowns have turned into an often-used tool that the government relies upon in order to silence dissent and limit the rights to freedom of press and expression under the guise of “maintaining law and order.” Lawyers, journalists, activists, and civil society actors have been immensely impacted by the consequential loss of the means and resources to carry out their professional activities during shutdowns. Without the internet, lawyers were unable to access legal research to defend their clients and judges were left without access to court data systems. Without the internet, journalists and civil society actors were unable to report on any human rights abuses that took place during protests and on the physical lockdown of Kashmir by both state and nonstate actors. Further, this report finds that the government has used vaguely worded regulations to proliferate their use of internet shutdowns, despite the fact that the Indian courts have on several occasions called on the government to limit its use of shutdowns and demanded that they only be put in place following a legally sound procedure that respects the rights of citizens to privacy, speech, and expression.
The report concludes with a set of recommendations for the government of India, the international community, and civil society actors. Particularly, for the government of India, reviewing the rules surrounding internet shutdowns and permitting greater judicial oversight of that process is an important first step to rolling back the increasing tide of internet shutdowns in the country. Unless some of the recommendations from the report are adopted, not only will the internet not be free in India, but any ruling administration in the future will be able to use shutdowns as a means to silence dissent, challenge the rule of law, and violate the individual rights of citizens.