India leads the world in imposed internet blackouts

India is mindful of the 2010 Arab Spring, a definitive proof of the internet’s anarchic capacity to spread free speech and self-determination, but is also aware of that fact that it is a gateway to sabotage democracy.

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India leads the world in imposed internet blackouts
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Defined broadly as wielding technology to enhance or enable authoritarian governance, ‘digital authoritarianism’ is spreading around the world. India is leading this ‘digital authoritarianism’ with imposed internet blackouts. According to Freedom House data, Indian authorities, in 2018, ‘temporarily shutdown mobile networks or blocked social media application during political unrest. And this is an alarming growing trend. The Freedom House has also sounded a warning, ‘securing internet freedom against the rise of digital authoritarianism is fundamental to protecting democracy’.

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Cyber security expert, Justin Sherman says governments in more and more countries can exert control easily over parts of the internet or other communications infrastructure, wither because infrastructure is centralized or the government has extraordinary authority, or both. Sherman highlighted that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has taken more positions at the United Nations to support restrictions on internet openness. “India has also heightened the use of artificial intelligence (A.I) enabled facial recognition in urban centres for identifying criminals and tracking persons of interest. While perhaps a useful tool for law enforcement in certain instances, such capabilities, without appropriate checks and balances can easily be turned against the likes of political dissidents and rights activists.”

The New York Times report has also pointed out that a quarter billion users in India played a significant role in aiding information-sharing through WhatsApp, a messaging application, during the 2014 Indian elections. Experts say this also became an insidious tool for spreading misinformation and ‘fake news’, and this resulted in riots and lynchings resulting in deaths. The Indian government turned to internet blackouts to address the issue. Perhaps, India is mindful of the 2010 Arab Spring, a definitive proof of the internet’s anarchic capacity to spread free speech and self-determination, but is also aware of that fact that it is a gateway to sabotage democracy. Taking into account the 2016 US elections that demonstrated that social networks can be used to undermine democracy as well as promote it.

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Sherman said the government came up with the idea to create a centre for monitoring social media activity in the country but was later dropped when the Supreme Court commented the move as creation of a ‘surveillance state’. Then in 2010, the government introduced the biometric identification system, Aadhaar, which was upheld by the SC and legalized in 2016. However, Aadhaar has received its fair share of criticisms and fears of social control. And data privacy has been time and again been brought to the fore.

Experts are closely monitoring India’s unclear stance on internet governance and hope that it doesn’t join neighbour, China’s model of digital authoritarianism, which is a combination of widespread automated surveillance and data collection with strict censorship.

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India leads the world in imposed internet blackouts
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India is mindful of the 2010 Arab Spring, a definitive proof of the internet’s anarchic capacity to spread free speech and self-determination, but is also aware of that fact that it is a gateway to sabotage democracy.
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THE POLICY TIMES