Stop internet shutdowns to suppress farmers’ protests!

Advocacy groups demand immediate restoration of internet services, start online signature campaign

farmers protest
Image courtesy: PTI

Three internet freedom advocacy groups: Free Software Movement of India (FSMI), Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) and Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), have come together to demand the immediate restoration of internet services in areas near Delhi’s borders. They have started an online petition to gather signatures and support for their cause.

Last week, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs had shut down internet services purportedly for “maintaining public safety and averting public emergency” via an order dated January 29, 2021. It appeared to be in response to the mass mobilization of farmers after a video of Rakesh Tikait breaking down and refusing to leave his supporters, especially the Sikh farmers and the elderly at the mercy of security forces on the night of January 28, went viral on social media.

The petition by the three advocacy groups on the platform says, “We, the undersigned organisations and individuals, strongly condemn the internet shutdowns imposed by central and state government authorities to suppress the farmers’ protests at the borders of the National Capital Territory of Delhi.”

They express shock at the manner in which the State is treating the protesting farmers saying, “The farmers have been peacefully protesting at the Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur borders for two months. However, subsequent to the Republic Day tractor parade on26 January 2021, there has been a crackdown against the farmers protesting at the borders with electricity and water supply also being allegedly cut off in some areas. Most disturbingly, there have been reports of violence being inflicted upon the farmers by unidentified mobs and police personnel. It is against this backdrop that we raise alarm about the use of internet shutdowns by government authorities to suppress the free flow of information related to peaceful assembly and the fundamental right to protest.”

The petition also points out why the internet shutdowns are not only unnecessary, but also unjustifiable saying, “These internet shutdown orders have been issued under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 and they do not adhere to the standards of necessity and proportionality endorsed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India.” It further says, “The internet shutdown orders are impermissibly vague and they do not provide any specific facts and figures which would demonstrate proper application of mind prior to their issuance. In fact, the use of internet shutdowns may be counterproductive because empirical studies suggest that internet shutdowns incentivise disorganised violence by cutting off channels for communication and coordination which are necessary for planned peaceful protests. There is already substantial police and paramilitary presence at the protest sites to identify and stop individuals who may be engaging in illegal activities, and a blanket internet shutdown which deprives lakhs of people of internet access is wholly unnecessary.”

They also point out the adverse economic impact of the shutdowns saying, “Internet shutdowns caused US$ 2.8 billion losses to the Indian economy in 2020 and telecom operators lose INR 2.4 crore for each hour of an internet shutdown.” Elaborating upon other inconveniences caused, the petition says, “Further, these internet shutdowns are causing massive inconvenience to the general public living near the protest sites and in adjoining areas. The residents of these areas are unable to access online education and remote work facilities which are essential during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.”

The petition also points out how internet shutdowns impair dissemination of correct news by journalists and also allow fake news to proliferate unchecked. It says, “Finally, these internet shutdowns have made it practically impossible for journalists to provide real time updates about the protests and taken away the farmers’ ability to present their version of events through social media. Since the farmers have raised serious concerns about the mainstream media not covering their protest in an accurate and fair manner, it is imperative that they are allowed to put forth their perspective through their own social media channels.” It adds, “Moreover, shutting down the internet also prevents citizens from verifying news that they receive, therefore it doesn’t stop the spread of fake news and misinformation. Farmers are also finding it hard to get supplies in absence of internet and SMS services which is impacting their right to life.

The entire online petition may be viewed here.


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