A recent international study has said that Kashmir is the region with highest number of internet shutdowns in the world referring the frequent communication gag as ‘digital repression’.
The recent Standford University study “Of Blackouts and Bandhs: The Strategy and Structure of Disconnected Protest in India”, which caught attention of world community on the social media, has stated that India has witnessed 134 network shutdowns in 2018 adding that more than 100 shutdown were seen in 2016-17. It has highlighted that Kashmir is most prone to internet shutdowns with the Valley being under a digital curfew for more than 203 days after 2016 unrest following the killing of Hizb Commander Burhan Wani.
To mention, an earlier report by a Delhi-based think tank has said Kashmir economy witnessed Rs 1773 crore losses due to net shutdowns in 2017 while telecom companies have pegged their losses due to net shutdown in crores of rupees as well.
Even as the Stanford study says the aim of the internet shutdowns is to control the spread of rumours, misinformation and restore law and order, it suggests that the shutdowns “do not seem to be meeting their intention”.
Speaking with Greater Kashmir from Delhi, Rajan Matthews, director general of Cellular Operators Association of India said the study will have a great impact on policy making of the government with regard to reducing net shutdowns. He said adding industry associations have of late complained with DoT that there have been internet shutdowns ordered “even where has been no emergency or threat to public safety”.
“We have red-flagged the issue of Internet shutdowns with the ministry time and again and put forth estimates of damages caused to Digital India programme. There are also huge losses which the telecom companies suffer due communication gags. Now that reports on national and international level have highlighted that internet shutdowns don’t meet their purpose, we hope there is swift action from central government to ensure that net shutdowns are minimized,” said Matthews.
In 2018, citing suffering of people due to internet shutdowns, Union IT ministry, had asked Jammu and Kashmir Government to avoid frequent suspensions of the net in Kashmir.
“It has come to the notice of DoT that frequent suspension of internet services are being ordered by (the) state government in circumstances where public emergency or public safety are not impacted…,” stated a letter sent by secretary of Union department of telecommunication (DoT) Aruna Sundrajan to the J&K Government. However, despite repeated directives from the centre, internet in Kashmir as per the Stanford report has been suspended as many as 80 times since January 2018 uptill now.
In order to regulate the internet shutdowns, Central government in September, 2017 came up with rules to legislate the authority required and procedures to be followed to “temporarily suspend telecom services” in case of “public emergency or public safety”. Issued by the Ministry of Communications under the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, these rules were codified as the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017. These rules confer the status of competent authority on the Union home secretary when the order is issued by the government of India. For a state government, the power lies with the state home secretary. In “unavoidable circumstances”, though, orders could be issued by an officer “not below the rank of a joint secretary to the government of India, who has been duly authorised by the Union home secretary or the state home secretary”. Department of Telecommunications has said that it has taken notice of the 65 times web access denied in the Valley in 2018 and is making all efforts against communication gags.
DoT which has in the last one year, has castigated Jammu and Kashmir government twice over frequent internet shutdowns has said that “unnecessary online blackouts cause economic damage and harm to the Digital India programme,”.
“We have seen the report and forwarded it to our concerned officials. We will be following upon it soon as we have already directed district magistrates not to enforce internet shutdowns every now and then ,” a DoT official told Greater Kashmir on phone from Delhi.