KARACHI: Of the 196 internet shutdowns documented across the world in 2018, India was responsible for the majority (67 per cent) incidents, according to a report released by Access Now.
Access Now is an international non-profit advocacy group dedicated to an open and free internet, and the #KeepItOn coalition has been documenting and verifying instances of internet shutdowns since 2016.
The global coalition noted that governments have been turning to network shutdowns with increasing frequency to quell unrest and suppress the spread of rumours and fake news. In 2018, it documented 196 internet shutdowns which is twice the number it recorded in 2017, and nearly three times the count from 2016.
As per its findings, India — which has retained its top position on the list of the world’s documented shutdowns since 2015 — witnessed 134 network suspensions last year.
47pc of these have occurred in Indian-held Kashmir, according to a recent study done at Stanford University. Indian-held Kashmir, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra, together imposed more shutdowns in 2018 than the other 22 states in India, the report pointed out.
Current blackout in held Kashmir is 53rd this year
The current shutdown in Indian-held Kashmir is the 53rd this year. In one instance, mobile internet remained suspended for 133 days in the region in the wake of protests following the killing of popular leader Burhan Wani in 2016.
In terms of regions, Access Now observed that Africa and Asia are the two continents most affected by internet shutdowns — 12 shutdowns in Pakistan, seven in Yemen, six in Ethiopia and five in Bangladesh.
It noted that in 2018, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka imposed internet shutdowns, citing the spread of information on social media believed to incite communal violence as the rationale. Out of 35 such cases in 2018, the Indian authorities were responsible for cutting access to the internet 31 times in attempts to stop communal violence.
Governments, however, rarely acknowledged shutdowns and continue to normalise the practice. “Out of the more than 200 incidents of shutdowns reported in 2018, only 77 were acknowledged by the government or entities that ordered the shutdown,” it said.
According to the report, the most common justifications cited in 2018 were public safety, “fake news” or hate speech and related violence, national security, and school exams.
The data revealed that when authorities cited “fake news”, rumours or hate speech, they were often responding to a range of issues including protests, elections, communal violence and militant activity.
In addition to directly infringing the right of access to information and freedom of expression, internet shutdowns helped hide grave human rights violations. As per the report, there were at least 33 incidents of state violence reported during internet shutdowns in 2018.
Explaining the anatomy of shutdowns, Access Now highlighted that about 22 of the 196 internet shutdowns were bandwidth throttling. Bandwidth throttling is the intentional slowing of an internet service or a type of internet traffic by an internet service provider (ISP).
According to the report, there were at least 63 mobile internet shutdowns incidents in 2018. In Africa, Ethiopia shut down mobile internet the most. In Asia, India again tops the list, followed by Pakistan and the Philippines. In Europe, Russia suspended mobile internet in some parts of its territory.
In terms of internet blackouts, 14 countries imposed blanket internet ban last year with Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India and Pakistan also employing other kinds of interference with access to information, blocking social media, throttling the internet or disabling SMS texting.
In 2018, the government authorities also responded to the problems arising from the spread of misinformation or disinformation with blunt, disproportionate blocking or throttling of access to social media platforms. According to the report, there were 14 such documented incidents. In Algeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey and Yemen, authorities shut down at least one social media platform in 2018.
Although cutting mobile phone calls and text messages is not common, Access Now documented two such incidents in Pakistan. The government and the judiciary each ordered a mobile phone shutdown, and each incident lasted for about five hours, the report observed.
Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2019