Communication Blackout in Kashmir Truly A Digital Siege, Says Former Stanford University Scholar

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A deserted lane after the protests were held in Anchar locality of Soura in Srinagar on September 13. — Photo by Mohammed Abu Bakar

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Zafar Aafaq | Caravan Daily

Over two months have passed since Kashmir has been placed under an unprecedented communications blackout with suspension of cellular, mobile internet and broadband services. On the 5th of August, the Indian government revoked the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir by effectively repealing Article 370 of Indian constitution. The authorities have imposed security clampdown by imposing restrictions on movement, public assembly and protests and carried out arrests on an unprecedented scale. Even children are not spared.

Jan Rydzak, a research scholar who has been recently working at Stanford University’s Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPi), is one of the prominent global experts on internet shutdowns and information control. Earlier this year, he published a paper giving statistical details about the connection between internet shutdowns and protests in India. His research established that the Kashmir Valley has so far seen the highest number of state imposed internet shutdowns in the world.

In a detailed interview with Zafar Aafaq for Caravan DailyJan Rydzak said, “Internet shutdowns don’t seem to be effective against any kind of protest, violent or non-violent”. — Excerpts:

Why is access to internet important?

Jan Rydzak: Access to the Internet is a human right. Three years ago, the UN Human Rights Council issued a declaration to this effect, and although it is non-binding and not all of the member states in this body are shining examples of Internet freedom, it still has lots of weight from a normative standpoint. The Internet facilitates more aspects of daily life than we can count, from mobile payments to communication with loved ones.

In India, Ravi Agrawal has reported that three citizens connect to the Internet for the first time every second, mostly in rural areas. In a multicultural, multilingual society, Internet access can be transformational as a gateway to other views, other languages, and ultimately, economic development. Stripping a population of access to communication triggers a domino effect where all of the benefits that come with digital networks come crashing down.

Kashmir has seen most number of internet shutdowns in the world. Why does the government resort to internet shutdown in Kashmir?

Jan Rydzak is one of the prominent global experts on internet shutdowns and information control.

In general, the more volatile and connected a region is, the more the government will want to blame social media for underlying societal ills. In Kashmir, the official justification (for imposition of Internet shutdown) is almost always upholding public safety, either in response to protest and violent incidents or in anticipation of them. In recent years, the authorities have been linking their blackouts to disinformation campaigns, which they often claim are coordinated or supported by Pakistani militants and Pakistan’s government.

But it’s difficult to document the process that leads to the severing of Internet access because it remains a black box. Several civil society organisations in India have tried to use the Right to Information Act to obtain the original orders, but they keep getting spurned by government officials. So, although groups like SFLC.in have already documented around 350 shutdowns in India, there have probably been many more than we are aware of. The Bureau of Police Research and Development also carefully guards its own data on protest, releasing only aggregates until 2017 and apparently completely foregoing the release of any data for 2018.

Does Internet help mobilise protests in Kashmir?

There is no doubt that it has a role to play. Approximately half of Kashmir’s population of 15 million has access to the Internet, mostly via mobile. Facebook’s advertising platform estimates that around 940,000 people in Kashmir are connected through that social network. Although the number of WhatsApp users is unknown, it is almost certain to be in the millions given the app’s ease of use and popularity across India, its largest market. The Internet helps to circulate true and false information in Kashmir and remains a useful tool to mobilise protest – especially peaceful protest, which tends to be more structured and dependent on strong coordination. However, it is one of the many instruments used for this purpose, and demonstrators have now been conditioned to expect the main digital channels of organisation will be blocked.

What is the effect of internet shutdown on protests in Kashmir? How does it affect the online political activities of people, particularly the youth?

Wherever they happen, shutdowns tend to evoke additional anger and frustration among people who were not originally motivated to go out onto the streets for political reasons alone. In Kashmir, riots broke out immediately after a shutdown was imposed in the aftermath of the killing of prominent militant Burhan Wani. Indeed, that week saw the largest concentration of violent unrest in Kashmir in all of 2016 – and it was followed by at least two more major escalations in subsequent weeks.

For regular Internet users, there is no doubt that shutdowns have a chilling effect. Many young entrepreneurs have already foregone their ambitions to launch digital businesses in Kashmir because connections are not reliable enough to sustain one. In terms of political activities, outrage almost always finds a conduit, be it digital or not. Although we don’t have much information about how online conversations change as a result of shutdowns, I suspect that it in fact becomes increasingly political as people who were previously politically neutral are inflamed into action by being cut off from the world. The avalanche of political content whenever the switch is flipped back on after a blackout seems to confirm this.

Have you studied the impacts the shutdowns have on different areas such as communication, health, education, economy?

I have, but I am not alone. Indian NGOs and research centres have been front and center in visualising the impact of shutdowns across India. For instance, the Bachchao Project has revealed the impact of shutdowns on women in Manipur, including loss of productivity, professional opportunities, and emotional well-being. On the economic front, a report published by one of India’s leading thinktanks showed not only that shutdowns had cost the Indian economy more than $3.04 billion from 2012 to 2017, but also told the stories of Internet-dependent business ventures that were ravaged by the disruptions to their main channels of revenue in this period, particularly small and medium enterprises and import/export traders. Many others have focused on the extent of the economic damage in other countries. And we must remember that all of these categories – education, economic and personal security, free expression – are human rights, and all of them are violated when communication is severed.

Of course, there is a lot more to be done – the impact of shutdowns tends to radiate in all directions, many of which remain undiscovered. For example, it is very difficult to estimate how many serious medical conditions or deaths would have been prevented if a disconnected area had been connected. From natural disasters such as Hurricane Maria, which knocked out a lot of the communication infrastructure in Puerto Rico, we do have evidence that information blackouts of any kind are particularly destructive in moments of crisis and emergency, where they can seriously hinder intervention. In those circumstances, access to communication channels can mean the difference between life and death. All of the impacts that are being documented will grow with time, especially in places with galloping rates of connectivity and burgeoning digital economies.

How is the Internet shutdowns in Kashmir difference from that of other parts of India in terms execution, pattern, purpose and effect?

First and foremost, Kashmir accounts for nearly as many shutdowns as all of the other states and Union territories put together – about 47%, to be precise. Kashmir has stimulated the diffusion of shutdowns across most of India – in fact, the very first known shutdown in India took place in January 2012 in the Kashmir Valley, in preparation for Republic Day. Unlike in other states, executive actors in Kashmir often use the threat of terrorism and separatist inclinations as an excuse to shut down communication, though they fail to consider that small cells of violent insurgents around the world are increasingly adapting to shutdowns by using alternative or non-digital means of communication.

I think we should also ask ourselves a broader question: why does India dominate all other countries in the number of shutdowns that are imposed each year? Why do half of the world’s deliberate blackouts take place in a democracy? The answer is almost certainly institutional. India’s 2017 shutdowns rules were the first in the world to clarify who can order a shutdown, when it can be imposed, and what process is to be followed. But there is no way to verify whether it is being followed, and the ever-growing incidence of shutdowns suggests that they were meant to legitimise the act itself rather than ensure accountability. No other country gives as much free rein to local officials to implement shutdowns as India does; the decision is almost always made at the highest, Central level. In India, the judiciary, the legislature, and the executive all condone blackouts – the overarching blessing that frees local officials from any untoward consequences.

The ongoing Internet shutdown in Kashmir has been termed by the UN as a form of collective punishment to the people of Kashmir. What makes this Internet shutdown different from the ones previously imposed?

Above all, scale and impact. The Solicitor General has claimed that the uproar over the most recent shutdown is overblown given that the outcry against the three-month long blackout imposed after the killing of Burhan Wani in 2016 was mild in comparison. Not only does this flout logic – as many have condemned both shutdowns and we know much more about the macro-level effects of shutdowns now than we did three years ago – but we are also dealing with a much larger and more coordinated crackdown than we did then. No doubt this is in part due to the fact that this shutdown is likely the first one to be ordered directly by the Central government. Thousands, including political leaders inclined towards the Central government, have been detained under the Public Safety Act and other legal instruments. The shutdown order or orders – which are still not publicly available – covered television channels and landlines, unlike previous cases where the government targeted primarily mobile connectivity.

In terms of impact, print and online media have been severely crippled, with reduced circulation and fewer papers seeing the light of day. Then, of course, there’s the duration of this shutdown. Most blackouts in Kashmir are ephemeral, lasting approximately three to five days on average; at 60 days and running, this one is a true digital siege. As we have seen elsewhere in the world – Cameroon, for example – such sieges are especially ruinous for digital economies. The stagnation of businesses in Kashmir under the blackout is further proof of that.

Information blackout can lead to spread of rumours and fake information. Does shutdown achieve the purpose of the government? What does your research suggest?

Most of the blackouts we’ve seen to date can be divided into three categories: those that backfired, those that did not change the intensity of protest (though they may have changed its structure), and those whose ultimate effectiveness is unknown because they were coupled with a slew of other restrictions. If a government’s true aim is to disrupt or prevent demonstrations or violence, then the research that both I and others have conducted suggests that they do not achieve what they are meant to achieve. Analyzing the data from India, we see the dynamics of protests change, but in an unexpected direction: they become more violent. On an average, compared to the standard scenario in which communication networks are available and undisrupted, we see escalations of violent unrest not just on the first day of a blackout, but for several days afterwards. In the information vacuum, it takes just as long for stone-pelting and other violent incidents to die down as under full connectivity, but they simply erupt much more frequently. At the same time, if the aim of the government is to disrupt peaceful demonstrations – which are protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and national regulations around the world – information blackouts have a very inconsistent success rate, to the point where they could be compared to flipping a coin. What this means is that shutdowns don’t seem to be effective against any kind of protest, violent or non-violent.

In other countries, where the organisation and dynamics of street protests might look different, there is still no evidence that blackouts are effective. For example, Navid Hassanpour published an entire book’s worth of evidence that the shutdown in Egypt in 2011 backfired spectacularly and caused protesters to split up into local clusters until the government was overwhelmed. More recently, when Omar al-Bashir shut down social media for three months in Sudan, peaceful anti-regime protests continued undisturbed – and when the transitional military regime cut off all communications, hundreds of thousands of people organised in traditional ways to express their outrage at the end of June. In Kashmir, we’ve seen the same mobilisation of masses in Soura under conditions of near-total information blackout, and the first days of the shutdown showed that protests around Kashmir continued at roughly the same levels after the abrogation of Article 370.

At the same time, we know very little about how blackouts affect the spread of disinformation. But it’s important to remember that massive disruptions stifle all kinds of information flows, and that rumors still fly when access is severed. In Sri Lanka, the blackout imposed after the Easter bombings in April left a single outlet – state-linked television – available to people, including those who were seeking their missing loved ones. False information communicated through this channel, which cited Sri Lankan police when it falsely identified a student at Brown University as a suspect, traveled far and wide – no doubt farther than the retraction the police was forced to make. Finally, we have to recognise something that was pointed out by my colleague Moses Karanja during the shutdown in Sudan – that blackouts only delay the circulation of information rather than stop it completely. Cutting off digital communication means that misinformation and disinformation on all sides of the political spectrum can percolate to those who still have access with no opportunity to fact-check or verify images, text, and video. This helps no one and harms everyone.

A lot of times Internet disruption comes in the form of just throttling down the Internet speed? Is the state afraid of the power of image and video and by throttling the speed the administration ensures that people are not able to upload and share media?

Yes, because images and video are not only more persuasive and emotionally stimulating but can reach across language barriers to speak to people with access to a phone regardless of their level of literacy. Hundreds of protests and campaigns – both violent and non-violent – have been launched in response to scandalous videos, whether those reflect reality or not. Videos and images are also arguably more difficult to fact-check – or at least in is more time-consuming, which can be a detriment to a proper response when the clock is ticking.

Throttling has been used in Turkey, Kazakhstan, SudanIndonesia, and other countries, precisely as a stopgap measure to slow down the sharing of images and video on WhatsApp, Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, and other channels. Doing this allows the government to claim that they are not taking the most extreme measure they could take – a complete shutdown of all communication. It also allows them to argue that they are toeing the lines dictated by international law, which states that authorities must adopt the measures that are least restrictive for free expression. Of course, it is legitimate and truthful audiovisual content that suffers most during a slowdown.

Both throttling and shutdowns are disproportionate and overbroad responses. Yes, WhatsApp is likely to facilitate the viral information sharing that can ultimately trigger violence, which lives inside the people who engage in it rather than the network. Yes, there are bad actors who deliberately incite this violence. But new research suggests that changes from within platforms – such as limiting the number of times a message can be forwarded – may be more effective in curbing dangerous disinformation than wholesale shutdowns. That is not to mention the chronically underfunded media literacy initiatives, which can create local networks of trust, education, and knowledge about how to hold healthy conversations and avoid misinformation traps. All of this is absent from sweeping, top-down directives such as blackouts. Indian civil society – not government actors, Western researchers, or Silicon Valley tech companies – should be in the driver’s seat here, with all the others playing a supporting role.

The concluding remarks of your paper says, “India is a Petri dish of information control in the developing world”. Would you elaborate on this remark?

India’s government holds a torch that many others in the region and beyond observe closely and often attempt to mimic. This especially applies to massive operational undertakings conducted across India. The Aadhaar programme has served as inspiration for digital identity systems, its successes and challenges providing a set of dos and don’ts for emerging digital ID programmes in countries such as Kenya. Prime Minister Modi’s unexpected demonetisation exercise in 2016 quickly prompted Pakistan to implement its own sister scheme. The flip side of this is that the repressive measures enacted by India’s government are just as likely to be emulated as the more politically neutral initiatives. Policy diffusion is nothing new, and if the world’s most populous democracy is also the lead executor of shutdowns, there is nothing to stop more authoritarian governments from imposing blackouts for ever more contrived reasons. In that way, the Indian government has all the responsibilities of a regional power in protecting free expression in the digital realm.

Internet access has been declared a human right, yet the state regularly violates this right in Kashmir and there is not much global reaction to it. Your take on this…

The lack of global reaction to date has to do with the way the news cycle operates. News outlets are naturally attracted to major moments of crisis and chaos, especially if they come without warning. The largest global outpouring of tweets and opinion pieces about a shutdown in recent memory came after the bombings in Sri Lanka in April of this year. The horrifying number of casualties justifiably drew media attention, and the government’s extreme response (shutting down social media) only added fuel to the fire. The same can be said of Egypt at the dawn of the Arab Spring, which was likely the first countrywide shutdown in the world and came at a momentous juncture in the history of the region.

To be brutally honest, the lack of a nationwide political crisis is not conducive to trending topics in the global news cycle. In Kashmir – and later across all of India – shutdowns were allowed to become the “new normal” for years, bolstered by the fact that many of them were short-lived and failed to generate interest beyond India. The abrogation of Article 370 brought Kashmir’s political crisis back into the crosshairs of journalists around the world who recognised that the situation was unprecedented. The communication blackout is one component of a larger story whose importance is now undeniable given its vast implications.

What role do you think your work on Internet shutdowns can play in safeguarding and promoting access to Internet in Kashmir and elsewhere?

I think – and hope – that it can show governments that extreme measures of information control are not the right way to approach crisis situations. It is important to maintain scrutiny and pressure on the human rights front because blackouts undermine an entire array of human rights, as numerous independent UN experts have confirmed. It is also critical to keep reminding leaders that their drive to block communication can devastate their economy and discourage their citizens from launching or maintaining their businesses.

But it is also key to target their self-interest. Governments often fail to understand that, under every Twitter handle and WhatsApp phone number, there are people willing to mobilise regardless of their access to digital communication. If blackouts do not work – or if they are likely to make a crisis even harder to handle – authorities have to ask themselves if it’s reasonable to impose them at all.

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