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Internet and social media shutdowns cannot be knee-jerk reactions

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-05-2017 Osama Manzar

The government seems to have hit on a new recipe to curb discontent and dissent in the Kashmir valley. It’s particularly ironical that the Jammu and Kashmir director of information and public relations used his Twitter handle @listenshahid to announce the suspension of 22 social media sites in Kashmir.

The valley has seen network shutdowns 28 times in the last five years, but a targeted approach to curbing social media is a first.

Does the government really think that imposing a ban on 22 social media sites is the way to handle dissent and contain protests? Does that mean that there were no protests on the streets in the Valley prior to the advent of social media? Is it not aware that banning these channels will only encourage people to find alternative ways of resistance, dissent and communication.

When the Internet was not as readily available in the Valley more than a decade ago, the government did try to impose text messaging bans to curb protests and dissent, but did they ever serve the intended purpose? Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and proxy servers are more popular today, not just in the Valley but across the country, than ever before. 

 When the government imposes a ban like this, it does not take into account the collateral damage it is causing or the millions of innocent people who have to face inconvenience because of a few hundred. It shouldn’t be ignored that social media is a channel of peaceful communications as well—for personal, political, social and economic purposes. When we take away people’s access to social media, we also stop them from watching entertainment videos on YouTube, reading real-time news on Twitter, carrying out e-commerce, trying Pinterest’s DIY craft ideas at home and exchanging messages with their loved ones living in different parts of the country or the world. 

The Internet, today, is the lifeline for thousands of businesses in Kashmir just as it is in a city like Delhi or Jaipur.

On the one hand, the central government is pitching for Digital India and Make in India; and on the other it’s taking away people’s right to access the Internet and setting back nascent start-ups in Kashmir. Is it fair to do so in the name of national security? 

And if restricting messaging tools is the way to a peaceful Kashmir, then why not just ban encrypted messaging tools like Signal and Telegraph rather than shutting down every social media app that can be easily tracked and monitored by authorities for any unlawful activity or dialogue? 

 India saw 14 cases of internet shutdown in 2015. This number rose to 30 in 2016. This year has already seen 17 cases of Internet shutdowns so far—and five of them have been in Jammu and Kashmir. So it didn’t come as a surprise when a report by the Brookings Institution put India among the top 19 countries worst affected by Internet shutdowns last year. According to the same Brookings report, India lost Rs6,485 crore in 2015-16 due to Internet shutdowns. Between 1 July 2015 and 30 June 2016, India had seen the highest number of Internet shutdowns at 22—the same as Iraq—in the world. 

Sometimes, there are legitimate reasons to black out communication channels to truly safeguard national security, but their effectiveness and repercussions need to be thoroughly examined and analysed.

Internet and social media blackouts cannot be a knee-jerk reaction to an incident of unrest or violence. 

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. He tweets @osamamanzar.

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