MUMBAI, April 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian
activists who rely on social media to share information in times
of tension are being frustrated by a wave of internet shutdowns,
with 22 sites closed in Kashmir this week alone.
The clampdown in India - only Iraq closes as many sites each
year - has hit doctors who treat rural patients via WhatsApp,
and silenced journalists covering street protests.
"It impacts crisis response and fuels rumours that can
trigger further violence," said Ramanjit Singh Chima at Access
Now, an advocacy group that is backing a global #KeepitOn
campaign against the wave of internet shutdowns.
"At the same time, it prevents journalists from freely
reporting, and citizens from sharing information."
Chima said a whole new way of information sharing was hit by
the clampdown, citing examples of ordinary people offering
shelter to their peers or relief agencies sourcing information
from the ground during terror attacks and disasters.
This week, the northern state of Kashmir ordered the
shutdown of 22 social media sites, mobile phone message
applications and video sites following street protests against
alleged abuses by Indian forces..
The ban includes Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Skype, Reddit
The home ministry says shutdowns help check violence.
"Messages and images that are spread through social media
platforms during communal tension and ethnic conflicts can lead
to such situations spiralling out of control. There is no option
but to suspend the internet," an official said.
Street protests have flared in recent weeks as thousands of
Kashmiris vent anger against alleged abuses by Indian forces
after a video emerged of a local man tied to the front of an
army jeep and used as a human shield.
The video circulated widely on social media, as have images
of students throwing stones at security forces.
While Kashmir has often shut mobile internet services during
previous times of unrest, banning social media is a first.
"It's a dangerous trend," Chinmayi Arun, executive director
at advocacy Centre for Communication Governance in Delhi, said.
Besides Kashmir, where shutdowns have sometimes lasted
weeks, internet clampdowns have also hit Gujarat, Haryana,
Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.
Few countries rely so heavily on the internet, be it to
conduct business, share information or socialise.
India is the world's largest internet consumer base after
China, and a majority of its 450 million subscribers access the
internet through a mobile handset.
Along with Iraq, India had the most internet shutdowns in
the world last year, according to the U.S.-based Brookings
Institution. Economic losses from shutdowns in the year to June
2016 totalled $968 million, the most for any country, it said.
But the clampdown also hurts free speech, denies poorer
citizens access to health advice and curtails online educational
opportunities, said Mishi Choudhary, legal counsel at advocacy
Software Freedom Law Centre in Delhi.
"With an increasing number of services being pushed online,
and the preference for a cashless economy, internet shutdowns
hurt small businesses and poorer individuals most," she told the
Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Doctors are cut off from chatting online with patients and
are unable to access patient data or seek second opinions on
cases, said Lubna Khan, a physician and activist.
"We are unable to provide care when and where it is needed.
We are in a pathetic state," she said.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Lyndsay
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