India lost almost a billion dollars from internet shutdowns over the past year, more than any other country during the same time period, according to a study released last week by the Brookings Institution.
The study, which looked at 19 countries that deliberately cut off access to the web between July 2015 and June 2016, found that India shut down the internet for about 70 days. Even though places like Morocco and ISIS-controlled Syria shut down the internet for a lot more days, the impact on the economy was the worst for India.
To calculate the economic impact of internet shutdowns, Darrell M. West, the study’s author, accounted for each country’s gross domestic product as well as the size of its digital economy and the duration of internet shut downs.
The study’s findings undercut the government’s “Digital India” campaign, launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last July, which seeks to expand internet access across the country and improve digital literacy.
Internet shutdowns in India have become more common since 2014, according to Dr. S. Amar Prasad Reddy, Additional Director General at National Cyber Safety and Security Standards, corresponding with the increased popularity of mobile applications like WhatsApp and Viber.
“With WhatsApp, it’s very easy to spread misinformation,” Reddy said. “But since the company doesn’t have a nodal officer in India, it’s very difficult for the agencies to trace the criminals.” When criminal suspects use these services to communicate, police agencies sometimes resort to shutting down the internet for everyone.
To shut down the internet anywhere in the country, usually the police or state government file a request with the state’s Department of Telecommunications. The department then orders the internet service provider — Airtel, Tata, BSNL, and so on — to cut the data.
Decisions to cut off the internet are often ill-conceived. In February, for example, the Gujarat State Subsidiary Selection Board was worried about cheating during the Revenue Accountant Recruitment Exam. Rather than simply banning applicants from bringing electronic devices into the examination room, the board shut down the internet across the state.
Internet access “is important for a citizen to exercise his fundamental right to freedom of expression,” said Prashanth Sugathan of Software Freedom Law Centre India, an organization that advocates for greater internet freedom. “It is unjustifiable to curtail this right for frivolous reasons like for preventing cheating in examinations.”
Sometimes, the government shut down the internet in an attempt to diffuse violent situations, such as the unrest following militant Burhan Wani’s death in Jammu and Kashmir. J&K has seen more internet shutdowns in the past three years than any other state, though the governments of Gujarat and Haryana both resorted to internet shutdowns during the civil unrest over reservations this past year.
“It is not clear that the remedy fits that objective,” West told the Hindustan Times in an email. “There are ways to reduce violence without damaging the digital economy. Leaders should understand that digital shutdowns generate serious economic costs that are growing over time.”
Dr. Reddy agreed. “Whatever may be the crisis, shutting down the internet should never be an option,” he said. Instead, enforcement agencies should update their skills in dealing with cyber crimes.