August 14, 2020

India’s Supreme Court Declares Country’s 5 Month Internet Blackout Illegal

As we’ve been discussing, India’s government has blacked out internet access in Kashmir since around August, setting records for one of the longest government-mandated internet blackouts in history. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to argue that the blackout is a necessary security precaution in the face of growing unrest in the region stemming from its loss of autonomy earlier this year. Granted like most government internet censorship efforts, the move has a lot more to do with cowardice and fear of an informed public than any genuine concern about public welfare.

Fast forward to this week, and India’s Supreme Court has warned that the blackout is clearly illegal:

“In a blow to the Hindu nationalist government of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, the country’s highest court said the expression of opposition to state policy could not justify the crackdown. The court said any suspension of the internet, which it called intrinsic to free speech, must be accompanied by detailed reasons to allow aggrieved persons to challenge it in court.

The ruling came in response to petitions filed by Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor of the Kashmir Times, the opposition Congress party leader, Ghulam Nabi Azad, and others. “The ruling shows that liberty and security have to be balanced. The court has made it clear that it is people’s freedoms that are paramount, not the government’s agenda,” said Sushmita Dev of the Congress party.”

After some initial complaints Modi’s government restored landline connectivity, and at least some text messaging services were restored at the tail end of December. Still, many in the region have found the outages make it impossible to maintain contact with loved ones and to find those who have been lost in the conflict. And while the Indian courts have clearly noted that the blackout violates free speech and basic human rights, the ruling effectively leaves it up to Modi’s government to do the right thing, or at least be more transparent about doing the wrong thing, something that doesn’t seem particularly likely:

“In principle the ruling is good, though it has taken a long time. But in terms of immediate relief, there is none. The court has left it to the administration to decide,” said Bhasin.”

The human cost of the blackout has been monumental, and studies have shown that internet shutdowns have cost the Indian economy around $1.3 billion in 2019 alone. And while Modi’s government continues to insist the blackouts are essential to preserve security and stability in the region, the reality remains that such efforts are the last refuge of cowards who simply don’t want their citizens informed as to the scope of the government’s aggressive and sometimes fatal buffoonery.
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