India may be the world’s largest democracy, but it's got an increasingly undemocratic approach to enforcing public safety: turning off the internet.
Internet shutdowns were first notably used during the Arab Spring in 2011, when some Middle Eastern regimes tried to prevent protesters from organizing online. But India's the worst offender, imposing more internet blackouts than any other country in the world — and affecting the 462 million internet users there. The Internet has been turned off 97 times already this year, 18 more times than in all of 2017.
The first documented shutdown happened six years ago, in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, where battles between separatists and the military happen frequently. Officials here think blackouts are an important part of maintaining security, so they turned off the internet ahead of Independence Day celebrations.
With at least 37 blackouts this year, the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir are the most internet-deprived of any state in India.
“It’s a human right for every person to use internet,” says Iqra Ahmed, a Kashmiri fashion entrepreneur. “I don’t have a physical store, so if Internet is banned, my whole business does not work properly, actually.”
The overall economic impact is huge: A recent study estimates that from 2012 to 2017, Internet blackouts have cost the country over $3 billion in lost revenue.
India has taken massive steps to expand its digital infrastructure through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Digital India” program. But the blackouts are getting worse: Last August, the government codified rules to the colonial-era telegraph laws to regulate blackouts, and they've since increased in both scope and frequency.
“These shutdowns seem to be spreading from border states to much more of mainland India,” says Apar Gupta, a co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “It’s becoming a regular tool of administrative practice.”
This year, the state of Rajasthan has shut the Internet down on three different occasions in attempts to prevent cheating on exams. Gupta worries that more shutdowns will affect Indian democracy.
“Internet shutdowns are completely unacceptable in any democratic system. It eventually only causes greater amount of lack of trust between citizens and the government itself and gives them a sense that they're not being heard.”
This segment originally aired August 16, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.