Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit the White House on Monday. Issues that are sure to be on the agenda include counterterrorism, bilateral trade and immigration policy. All are important, but we have another question for Modi: How does he plan to implement his vision of a "Digital India" when local Indian authorities are increasingly clamping down on Internet and telecommunications access across the country?
According to the Software Freedom Law Center, state governments in India have taken to suspending broadband or mobile Internet services across districts for hours or even days at a stretch. The organization has recorded 81 separate incidents in which authorities have restricted Internet access since 2012. This number has risen markedly in the past year, with 22 shutdowns in 2017 and four in the first week of June alone.
In media statements, authorities have cited national security as the primary reason for restricting access to the Internet. They have pointed out that social media has been known to incite communal violence and create mass confusion. But instead of blocking specific pages or websites that pose a threat to public safety, local governments have often opted to take entire districts offline arbitrarily. In one case, officials suspended social-media apps to prevent cheating during a state exam for government accountant positions.
These shutdowns limit free expression and political organization in a country that, despite its generally flourishing democracy, has already been criticized for stifling dissent. They have also impeded government services, particularly in districts where newly digitalized agencies rely on the Internet to reach citizens. And in general, restricting social-media usage has failed to prevent panic and discord: On occasion, the lack of information has fueled even greater unrest.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Moreover, shutting down Internet access comes at great economic cost. India has a rapidly expanding digital sector, and blocking Internet access impedes e-commerce and digital services. A 2016 report from the Brookings Institution estimated that shutdowns may have cost India $968 million in lost economic activity, without even taking into consideration the loss in business confidence and impact on worker productivity. If Modi wants to show American investors that his country has "the most open economy in the world," he would do well to address these concerns.
The Indian government has taken steps to bring the country into the 21st century: Its policies to reduce red tape, attract foreign businesses and expand digital services have enormous potential. It would be a shame if these reforms fail to reach that potential because of suspended WiFi.