Saturday, January 30, 2021

Internet Shutdowns in India: From Kashmir to Haryana

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Vaishnavi Krishna Mohan

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Internet Shutdowns in India: From Kashmir to Haryana


Global Views 360

Publication Date

January 30, 2021


Representative Image no Internet

Representative Image no Internet

India has one of the world’s largest internet user base and also has the maximum number of internet shutdowns. In 2018, India recorded 134 shutdowns which is the highest the country has seen yet. The article delineates the implications of Internet shut-down—while looking at specific cases of Kashmir, CAA-NRC, and Farm Bill Protests—and the legal procedures associated with the same.

The internet shutdown imposed in Kashmir on 4th August 2019, when Article 370 of the Constitution was abrogated by the Parliament of India recorded the longest shutdown in India.  In the initial days, landline and mobile services were restricted as well. While the ban on landline and mobiles was lifted soon, 2G services were restored for “verified users” on 25th January 2020. Only whitelisted websites could be accessed and social media remained prohibited. A new order was passed on 4th of March 2020, by the administration of J&K, according to which the whitelist was removed but internet could only be accessed using 2G on verified SIM's. As Kashmir is still languishing without high-speed internet, at least 7 million have been affected due to the shutdown.

Anti CAA-NRC Protests in Lucknow | Source: Youtube

In December, 2019, during the notable protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the authorities in the states of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura severed internet connection as they supposedly cited a threat of violence and false rumors. Parts of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh were also under a digital lockdown. Internet shutdowns come with a great cost. Every time the central or state government decides to cut the internet, a large number of students, businesses, travelers, online journalists and influencers are affected resulting in a huge monetary loss. According to a report by TopVPN, India has lost nearly $2.7 billion due to all the 83 internet shutdowns in 2020 alone. This loss is greater than the combined loss of the next 10 countries in the list. The report also revealed that India also stayed offline for longer than any other country, at 8,927 hours last year. The largest contributor to this figure is the 213-day shutdown in Kashmir.

The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce reported that the cumulative loss due to the internet shutdown and restriction in the region was $5.3 billion. The authorities say that these shutdowns are simply to stop the spread of dangerous misinformation which they believe moves faster in social media like Facebook and messaging apps like WhatsApp. However, the internet shutdowns are usually enforced after a piece of misinformation has been spread widely. In 2018, 33 of the shutdowns were justified by the government claiming that they wanted to curb dis/misinformation. The problem is that, when you cut people off from being able to access information, the only access they have is to previous misinformation. In fact, cutting off the internet can turn a previously predictable situation into a highly volatile one. A study conducted by Stanford suggested that mass mobilization in India can occur even in the absence of social media and digital platforms. Another report published by Stanford stated, “Rumours and disinformation continue to spread with or without access to digital communication networks, whose primary role is that of accelerators of information diffusion.” In addition to this, the study found that internet shutdowns force protesters to substitute non-violent tactics for violent ones which are less reliant on effective communication and coordination. In April 2019, Sri Lankan government shutdown all social media platforms as a result of the Easter Suicide Bombings. The IFCN (International Fact-Checking Network) reported that fake news was rampant despite the shutdown. IFCN also noticed an increase in false reports on Facebook from that area. However, the above mentioned facts did not have the potential to stop India from once again disregarding the negative implications of Internet shut-down. India continues to be indifferent.

Protesting farmers at Singhu Border | Source: Harvinder Chandigarh via Wikimedia

The ongoing farmers’ protest in India against the three farm bills (now acts) passed in the parliament turned violent on 26th of January. A group of the protesting farmers who were on a tractor rally, deviated from their route and entered the Red Fort. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs temporarily suspended internet in Singhu border, Ghazipur border, Tikri border, Mukarba Chowk and Nangloi for 24 hours. On 29th of January, the State government of Haryana ordered telecom operators to shut down all mobile internet services, all SMS services, and all dongle services in 17 of the 22 districts of the state until 5 pm on January 30, 2020.

The shutdown was based on the grounds of preventing protestors from mobilising through social media and to constrain the plague of disinformation, which was spread due to the tensions at farmer camps between unidentified miscreants, farmers and later the police. But there was a lack of media coverage of the police violence while they highlighted the protestors’ response to it, essentially disseminating biased disinformation which they ‘intended’ to curb with an internet shutdown.

The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 permits the government to block internet access in case of a public emergency. After 2017, Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules was deployed in cases of internet shutdowns. The Rule 2(1) describes the protocol and powers for the ‘competent authority’ to issue a direction for the suspension of Internet.  The ‘competent authority’ here refers to the Home Secretary of the Union government or the State government. If obtaining prior directions from either of these authorities is not feasible, the order may be issued by an officer, not below the rank of a Joint Secretary to the Government of India. This officer should be duly authorized by the competent authority to issue suspension order and must receive confirmation from the competent authority within 24 hours of issuing such order. In January 2020, the Supreme Court directed that in addition to the Telecom suspension rules, all internet shutdowns must be made public and the orders must be a committee must review all internet shutdown orders once every seven working days to ensure if it is in accordance with the Telecom suspension rules. In November 2020, a new rule was introduced stating that a single order cannot authorize a shutdown for a period exceeding 15 days. Despite several regulations, the Internet Freedom foundation found out that there is low compliance by state governments. Even in 2019, in multiple cities, including the national capital, the suspension orders were issued by the State Police. The New York times reported there were instances where local authorities of India ordered the shutdown with just a few phone calls to the local service providers.

In addition to repression of dissent, telecom shutdowns also have an impact on healthcare services, doctors and ambulances especially in the cases of violence when they certainly have a harder time communicating with people on the ground hence creating a vacuum of information.

Arbitrarily shutting down the internet is a fundamental right violation. The frequencies of internet shutdowns in India are highly alarming. Besides, it is ironic that in 2020, the government announced its plan to bring high-speed fibre-optic based broadband to all Indian villages in the next three years. While it is most certainly beneficial to those living in these villages and to those wanting to spread propaganda, all the effort would be insignificant if the nation continues to shut down the internet at this rate of recurrence.

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February 22, 2021 11:14 PM

Iran, Turkey, Qatar Alliance: Will this mark a shift in MENA's Balance of power?

Qatar, Iran and Turkey have been forming an alliance—which impacts several countries—especially in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. The move comes after Israel recently established its diplomatic relations with four Arab league countries, namely, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. The article covers how this move can have an impact on the balance of power in the region.

Support for the Palestinian Cause

The three countries are critical of the Israel-Arab ties and support the Palestinian cause. Various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah as well, are shoring up ties with Turkey and other countries in the region that stand against normalization with Israel.

During his speech in the 75th United Nations General Assembly, Erdogan called out on Israel and proclaimed, “The occupation of Palestine is a bleeding wound.”

Since the Gaza attack, which killed 10 Turkish social activists aboard a ship by the Israeli commandos in international waters, the relationship between the two has only soured. After this incident, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel, downgrading the diplomatic status. Yet in 2016—after a few meetings—the relationship was restored. However, after another attack in Gaza in 2018, Turkey called back its ambassadors again and expelled the Israeli ambassador to Turkey. Since then they do not have full diplomatic status.

Following the attacks Erdogan—the president of Turkey—even called Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu “a terrorist.” The country has been openly supportive of the Palestinian cause, and has also sent aid for humanitarian relief to the Palestinians. Several Hamas leaders have been visiting, taking refuge, and even meeting with Erdogan.

On August 22, 2020, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh met Erdogan in Istanbul. Jibril Rajoub, secretary of Fatah’s Central Committee, as well arrived in Turkey on September 21, 2020 to meet with Haniyeh and his deputy Saleh al-Arouri and discuss ways to end the internal Palestinian division.

On the same day, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas phoned Erdogan and thanked him for his support for the Palestinian cause. The two have shared several calls since—discussing political developments and US pressure on the region to normalize ties with Israel and ways to face such pressure.

Turkey has tried to balance its relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, who happen to be arch rivals. But after the recent growing closeness with two of Saudi Arabia’s rival countries, Iran and Qatar, Turkey might end up straining its relations with Saudi Arabia.

Qatar-Saudi Arabia conflict

This diplomatic conflict is also known as the Second Arab Cold War (the first one being the Iran-Saudi Arabia Cold War). There is an ongoing struggle between the two countries to gain influence in the Gulf. Their relations strained especially after the emergence of Arab Spring. During that time, Qatar became in favour of the revolutionary wave, whereas Saudi Arabia was against it. Both the States are allies of the United States, but have a tussle in their ideologies. Both have avoided direct conflict with each other.

There are other issues between them which leads to further tussle-

1. Qatar broadcasts a news channel, Al Jazeera, which favours the Arab Spring.

2. Qatar has good relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia's rival.

3. Qatar also allegedly supported Muslim Brotherhood in the past. Which it denies.

The Qatar diplomatic crisis became worse in 2017. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic relations and trade ties with Doha, and imposed a sea, land and air blockade on Qatar, claiming it supported “terrorism” and was too close to Iran. Yemen, the Maldives and Libya's eastern-based government also followed later. Qatar rejected the claims and said there was “no legitimate justification” for the severance of the relations.

How does this new alliance affect the other countries in the region?

The new alliance seems to lead into formations of two alliance groups or blocs in the region, with some countries siding with Iran, Qatar and Turkey and others with the Saudis and their allies. Another point to keep in mind is that Saudi Arabia is supported by the US, while two countries from the former alliance—Turkey and Iran—are supported by Russia. This will lead to further division among the Middle Eastern countries.

President Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain, Israeli Prime Minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the UAE Signing the Abraham Accords | Source: Trump White House Archives

This alliance can also affect the trade among these countries, and can severe the ties of many Middle Eastern countries. The biggest beneficiary is going to be Israel, which doesn’t have good relations with most of the Muslim world, except the ones which established diplomatic ties recently by signing the Abraham Accords.

In North Africa countries like Egypt and Morocco recognise Israel. However, most of the North African countries also supported the Arab Springs, which is against the ideas of Saudi Arabia. The Islamic holy land seriously seems to have less Arab allies when it comes to opposing the Arab Springs.

In fact, there can be impacts on trade and diplomatic ties with other countries outside the Middle East and North African region as well. Countries will have to balance their relations with both these groups.

How does it affect the Balance of power in the region?

In international relations, balance of power refers to the posture and policy of a nation or group of nations protecting itself against another nation or group of nations by matching its power with the power of the other side.

There has been a Cold War situation between Iran and Saudi Arabia as they are very (perhaps most) influential powers in the region. But Saudi Arabia is still more influential as a business as well as a soft power—it has a richer economy, oil exports, and most importantly, being the holy land where every Muslim comes for Hajj pilgrimage—it has Mecca and Medina. It is the land where the Prophet Muhammad first delivered his messages and teachings. Iran may try to compete in the economic part, but isn't equally as challenging in the religious part—although it is an important country for the Shia Muslims.

There have been arms embargo on Iran by the UN for arms race. Russia and China have been eager to supply Iran with advanced jets, tanks and missiles, which is quite alarming for its Gulf Arab neighbours, especially its primary adversaries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

On 14 September 2019, drones were used to attack the state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Houthi movement in Yemen claimed responsibility, joining it to events surrounding the Saudi Arabian intervention in the Yemeni Civil War and stating that they used ten drones in the attack from Yemen. Saudi Arabian officials said that many more drones and cruise missiles were used for the attack and these originated from the north and east, and that they were of Iranian manufacture. The United States and Saudi Arabia have stated that Iran was behind the attack while France, Germany, and the United Kingdom jointly stated Iran bears responsibility for it. Iran has denied any involvement. The situation has only exacerbated the Persian Gulf crisis.

By forming this new alliance, supporting the Palestinian cause—with Qatar—even supporting the idea of Arab Springs; the Iran-Turkey-Qatar alliance has a new power with them. What remains to be seen is the other Middle Eastern country’s decision—whether they support this new alliance and the Palestinian cause or go for yet another fragile “peace-building” initiative in the already disturbed region.

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