The internet gag on Asia
Internet shutdowns have often been used by governments to clamp down on citizens, and the trend is becoming more common around the world, including in Nepal’s neighbourhood.
Following practices by countries in the region, the Nepal government tabled its own Information Technology Bill law to ‘regulate the use of social media’ in 2019. This followed laws that can criminalise free speech under the Penal Code, as well as the Media Council Bill. After strong backlash from journalists and activists, some of these provisions were shelved.
Had it been endorsed into law, the bill would have given the government unprecedented surveillance power to monitor activities of citizens through their internet and social media use. The IT bill would have also allowed the government to censor online content, and punish anyone it did not like with five years imprisonment and up to Rs1.5 million in fines.
This was not the first time since the NCP government came to power three years ago that it has tried to push through such curbs on free expression. The attempts to ‘regulate’ the internet is seen as a camouflaged attempt at blanket censorship – including on the mainstream media which also have online editions.
Historically, too, Nepal has regressed back to intermittent media controls even after the end of the Panchayat in 1990. Most notable was the internet and mobile blackout after King Gyanendra’s military coup on 1 Feburary 2005. The army also imposed strict censorship on news, banning FM radios from broadcasting news and sent soldiers into newsrooms to monitor and censor content.
Nepal is sandwiched between the Great Firewall of China through which Beijing controls the internet, and India which has the dubious distinction of being the country that has cut the internet most often.
Kashmir has experienced one of the longest internet blackouts in the world. The net has not come back fully since it was put out on 5 August, 2019. This was aimed at suppressing protests that followed Modi government’s decision to nullify the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.
With the internet blackout, most criticism of the government on social media platforms was blocked, and there was also censorship of the online news media. After 18 months, internet services are slowly being restored to certain parts of the state.
India proves that a government does not have to be authoritarian to gag the media. Elected governments elsewhere have also suppressed freedom of expression and got away with it. Hong Kong and Burma are just the most recent examples. The Burmese military has not only ordered a total shutdown of the internet, but also mobile phone services.
Ironically, governments justify their curbs on free speech by using the excuse of ‘preventing fake news’. Internet Service providers (ISP) therefore have a moral obligation to protect the right of the public to access the internet. ISP companies are forced to by reigning authorities to shut down the internet, and in many cases, within hours of public protests or critical online debates.
Very often they comply with these requests as they are under the pressure of losing their licenses. So far, there have been very few reports of any ISP in any country standing up to the authorities, and defying a call for shutting down the net.
A cut to net access are not only a major threat to the democracy of a nation, but also a breach of international human rights. The UN Human Rights Council rules that cutting people’s access to the internet as illegal.
‘Governments are increasingly resorting to shutdowns in times of crisis, arguing they are necessary for public safety or curbing the spread of misinformation...’ says Human Rights Watch in a report. ‘When the internet is off, people’s ability to express themselves freely is limited, the economy suffers, journalists struggle to upload photos and videos documenting government overreach and abuse, students are cut off from their lessons, taxes can’t be paid on time, and those needing healthcare cannot get consistent access.’
During emergencies like a pandemic, having access to the internet is even more crucial since most activities are online. At such times, the internet can actually save lives. People all over the world are now even more heavily reliant on the internet for health, education and jobs.
Yet, activists say, there were 1,706 days of internet disruptions and 213 net shutdowns across 33 countries in 2019. India, for example, had 121 shutdowns, followed by Venezuela with 12, and Yemen with 11 closures.
ISPs must stand together to file collective lawsuits against any government and demand evidence of legitimate laws that allows this action. They should also be transparent with their customers, informing them of the pressure from governments to shut down their service.
This information should be circulated widely via news outlets, activists and social media before these companies are forced to obey the illegal demands of the authorities. ISPs could also team up with non-profit organisations like Internet Without Borders, Access Now, and Human Rights Watch to challenge and reverse illegal laws forced on them by governments.
Internet shutdowns are emerging as the next big threat to democracy in Asia, and the region’s ISPs are morally obligated to stand up against government-imposed shutdowns to protect and preserve democracy and free speech.
The public and ISPs must not just stay vigilant to prevent future shutdowns, but also more general suppression of freedoms, and the invasion of individual privacy through data access.
Shivani Basnet is a Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs in New York.