Even as the Supreme Court of India held that access to the internet is a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Constitution on January 10, a study by UK-based tech research firm Top10Vpn found that India imposed an internet blackout of close to 4,200 hours in 2019, which cost the country $1.3 billion in economic activity.
The report said that India was the third worst-hit economy worldwide after crisis-hit Iraq and Sudan, and with Venezuela coming in fourth.
India was also the country which imposed internet restrictions more often than any other country, with over 100 shutdowns documented in 2019, clocking 4,196 hours.
Notably, the firm only took into consideration specific regions that faced large region-wide shutdowns, as they tend to be “highly-targeted, even down to the level of blacking out individual city districts for a few hours while security forces try to restore order. The full economic impact is therefore likely to be higher even than our $1.3 billion figure. An average of 8.4 million internet users were impacted across the multiple incidents,” the report stated.
The most significant disruptions have been in the turbulent Kashmir region, where after intermittent shutdowns in the first half of 2019, access has been blocked since August. The five-month-long blackout is the longest ever imposed in a democracy, The Washington Post said.
In what has come as a relief, the SC has asked the Jammu & Kashmir administration to review within a week all orders imposing curbs in the Union Territory.
The three-judge bench headed by Justice NV Ramana has also directed the J&K administration to restore internet services in institutions providing essential services like hospitals and educational places.
While Indian authorities have attempted to justify the digital blackout on national security grounds due to unrest in Kashmir, following their controversial decision to strip India’s only Muslim-majority region of its autonomy. The bench, which also comprised justices BR Gavai and R Subhash Reddy, said Section 144 CrPC (prohibitory orders) cannot be used indefinitely to suppress freedom of speech and expression and difference of opinion.
Samuel Woodhams and Simon Migliano, authors of the Top10Vpn report told the Times of India that the shutdown in Kashmir is one of the longest internet shutdowns to have ever occurred and alone cost the Indian economy nearly $1.1 billion in 2019.
Besides the J&K blackout, violent reactions in December to another change to Indian law – the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), prompted internet blackouts across many districts of Uttar Pradesh, along with the nearby regions of Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya.
The other major shutdown also had its root in religious tensions. An SC ruling in November over the Ayodhya holy site, which simmered between Hindus and Muslims for over a century, prompted shutdowns 'to avoid the spread of misinformation' in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, and also in Rajasthan.Others on the listIraq, which led the list on the basis of economic impact at $2.3 billion, imposed 209 hours of internet blackouts and an additional 54 hours of social media shutdowns.
Sudan, which came in second, imposed 864 hours of internet blackouts and 696 hours of social media shutdowns, which cost the economy $1.8 billion.
Venezuela imposed 60 hours of internet blackouts and 111 hours of social media shutdowns, causing a $1.07 billion damage to its economy.
Notably, Iraq and Sudan are war-torn, while Venezuela has faced an extended social, political and economic crisis.
In terms of hours of disruption, Africa’s Chad (4,728 hours of shutdown) and Myanmar (4,880 hours) ranked ahead of India with significantly lesser economic impact.The study arrived at the economic cost based on Netblocks’ and The Internet Society’s cost of shutdown tool, which relies on data from The World Bank, International Telecommunication Union, Eurostat, among others.