IGF 2019 WS #370 Warning! Internet is suspended for security reasons!

Organizer 1: Shashank Mohan, Software Freedom Law Centre, India

Speaker 1: Prasanth Sugathan, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 2: Mishi Choudhary, Private Sector, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 3: Berhan Taye Gemeda , Civil Society, African Group

Policy Question(s): 

There has been growing debate around the menace of Internet shutdowns in the world. Civil society groups and academia have been highlighting the impact of such shutdowns and countries such as – India, Pakistan, Turkey and Ethiopia have suffered shutdowns in the last few years. The past year has seen the maximum shutdowns in the world, with India leading the way at 132 shutdowns in 2018. Recently, the Indian government, issued letters to local governments requesting them not to shut access to the internet in situations where public safety is not the concern. Though, this is a positive development, the threat of internet shutdowns is not likely to be resolved overnight. In India, governments can legally suspend access to the internet under rules framed under the law called the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. These rules allow for suspension of network services in cases of public emergency or public safety.

Unfortunately, despite research on the negative impacts of internet shutdowns, governments across the world, continue to impose these disruptions. One important question is – whether shutdowns achieve their desired objectives? In situations of public safety and public order, do shutdowns end up restoring peace? As a matter of argument, even if shutdowns achieve their desired results, what should be the mode of deploying these shutdowns?

Our panel discussion will include experts from around the world who have been actively working on the subject of internet shutdowns. They will share personal stories and their work from their respective regions of work. We propose to learn from work done by organizations around the world and collaborate/ partner with global leaders to drive our work in India. Lessons learnt will be incorporated in our local work in the country towards advocating with the government against using internet shutdowns as a tool for law enforcement.

Relevance to Theme: Due to internet shutdowns, the promise of affordable and equal access to all gets diluted. Our discussion on internet shutdowns highlights the contradiction of the Indian government on one side with their promise of a ‘Digital India’, wherein all Indians are connected to the internet and on the other hand using internet shutdowns liberally in the name of safety and security.

Relevance to Internet Governance: Internet governance begins with access to Internet. The largest and most diverse democracy in the world along with other developing nations have been shutting access to the internet regularly in the name of safety, security and sometimes for more arbitrary reasons like stopping cheating in exams and as a precautionary measure in times of public festivals. We at SFLC.in believe that shutdowns abrogate free speech and digital rights of millions of Indians. Its one of the most pressing Internet Governance issues affecting over half a billion Indians and there is no proof that shutdowns achieve their intended consequences.


Panel - Auditorium - 60 Min

Description: The internet has become one of the most essential utilities of the modern world. The UN has recognized it a basic human rights and it has lead to the enhancement of other fundamental rights such as – free speech, equality, freedom of trade etc. Realizing the potential of the internet for upliftment, various governments around the world have deeply integrated it into their growth story and have built strategies for improving access. Despite these realities, large populations across the globe are still unconnected and have never logged on to the internet, for ex.
more than half of India’s population is still not connected to the internet.

Sometimes, financial realities and demographic challenges is not what hampers access to the internet. The irony is that nation states suspend access to the internet in the form of internet shutdowns – which is a government imposed
disablement of access to the internet. These shutdowns are often imposed by governments for the purposes of national security and public safety, but have also been seen as tools to avoid cheating in exams. Recently, there have been instances around the world, where countries have been disabling access to the internet around the times of elections. Governments say that this is to stop the flow of fake news and rumors, but will there be collateral damage to other human rights like free speech?

Research has shown that because the internet has become such an essential utility in everyday life, suspension of access to the internet has massive – social and economic costs. One study from India pegs the loss suffered to the economy due to internet shutdowns at around 3 Billion USD (from 2012- 2018). India has unfortunately been at the forefront of the debate around internet shutdowns in the world. As captured by our internet shutdowns tracker run by SLFC.in – the country has already witnessed 270 shutdowns from 2012, out of which around 132 can be attributed to the year 2018 alone. This is counterproductive for the country as the Indian government runs a marquee project dedicated to digital upliftment called Digital India. The efforts of civil society, academia and media in India has lead
to awareness and the government realiz ing the harms caused due to internet shutdowns. But legally governments across India can continue to suspend internet in situations of public safety.

The goal of our discussion is to determine whether internet shutdowns should be the mechanism for governments across the world to ensure peace and security. It has been established that the costs associated with shutdowns
are very high, we wish to ask the question whether the reasons for shutting down the internet (benefits of shutdowns in this case) outweigh the costs? And if not then what are the possible alternatives to address public safety and
emergency situations.

The discussion will begin with our panel of experts sharing their personal stories from the respective regions they belong to. Next, the moderator will ask each panelist to give their views about whether, in their experience internet
shutdowns are useful and effective in achieving their intended goals and if not, then what are possible alternatives. The panelists will then be asked to give their comments on how should policies around the world develop to
address internet shutdowns and if shutdowns must happen (according to governments) then – what shall be in the situation in which shutdowns may be viewed as acceptable? What shall be the mode of such shutdowns? And what
shall be the transparency mechanisms to be observed before ordering shutdowns? Subsequently, the floor will be then opened up for audience participation. The audience will be allowed to participate though suggestions, comments, questions or general remarks.

Expected Outcomes: Our main objective of conducting this session is to determine the effectiveness of internet shutdowns – in achieving their desired outcomes. A majority of shutdowns around the world are imposed with the reason of maintaining public security and pubic order, we want to ask the question whether such shutdowns actually help law enforcement agencies in maintaining peace and thwarting the proliferation of crime?

SFLC.in (Software Freedom Law Centre, India) is a civil society organization based out of New Delhi, India, working towards defending the digital rights of people. At SFLC.in, we maintain a tracker to record the number of incidents of internet shutdowns in India at . We have been running this tracker since the year 2012. As per our tracker, India has already witnessed 270 instances of internet shutdowns (with 132 shutdowns out of those from 2018 itself). As the government does not have a formal mechanism of reporting instances of shutdowns in India, we also collect information from secondary sources like media reports and rely on on-ground reporting by affected citizens. These figures might not be representative of the actual number of shutdowns, as a number of shutdowns go unreported in popular media channels or by locally affected citizens. We also regularly meet with members of parliament, government officials and other civil society groups to conduct policy discussions
around the issue of internet shutdowns.

The learnings from this session will guide our work on internet shutdowns in India, whether research or policy advocacy. This will fuel our work, which is aimed towards establishing a human rights respecting policy model for internet shutdowns in India. We will also seek collaborations/ partnerships with other international organizations at IGF, who help us in addressing our work towards resolving the menace of internet shutdowns in India.

Onsite Moderator: 

Shashank Mohan, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group

Online Moderator: 

Shashank Mohan, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group


Shashank Mohan, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group

Discussion Facilitation: 

We will ensure that audience gets to ask questions to our experts. Our panel will not just be one sided, but at each interval our moderator will ensure that audience gets to ask questions to the panelists, so that the discussion is interactive. We will also take questions from online audiences.

Online Participation: 

Usage of IGF Tool


GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
GOAL 10: Reduced Inequalities
GOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities