An op-ed authored by Jan Rydzak and Rohini Lakshané on the topic of intentional Internet shutdowns in India was published in the Hindustan Times on May 3, 2019. Jan Rydzak is a research scholar and Associate Director for Program, Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPi), Stanford University. Rohini Lakshané is Director (Emerging Research), The Bachchao Project.
Shutdowns have caused billions of dollars in economic damage and deeply impacted lives and livelihoods across India. However, rarely do we hear a more fundamental question: do shutdowns achieve their intended goals? Research suggests that it doesn’t.
The social media shutdown that followed the recent terror attacks in Sri Lanka was no isolated incident. On a global level, more than 40 countries have executed more than 400 blackouts of social media or Internet access since the Arab Spring. India accounts for an overwhelming majority of this tally. Nearly half of the estimated 306 shutdowns executed in India over the last seven years occurred in 2018, amid the surge of lynchings attributed to the circulation of violent content on WhatsApp.
Shutdowns have caused billions of dollars in economic damage and deeply impacted lives and livelihoods across India. But rarely do we hear a fundamental question: do shutdowns achieve their intended goals? State governments in India routinely frame deliberate blackouts as either a public safety response to agitations or a preventive measure to restrain disinformation on social media and communication apps. Not a single time have they provided more than anecdotal evidence that a blackout successfully prevented the escalation of protest or curbed the spread of false information with the potential to stoke violence. The effectiveness of shutdowns in protecting public safety tends to be perceived as an indisputable truth, both in India and abroad.