India is battling a massive contradiction when it comes to digital access. On the one hand, the government is strongly promoting a vision of a hyperconnected society and economy, where cities are smart and citizens’ ID systems are digitized. On the other hand, one of the government’s favorite tools for clamping down on dissent is shutting down the internet.
It does this regularly, and more than any other government. The Software Freedom Law Centre maintains a tracker of Indian internet shutdowns. This recorded over 100 distinct shutdowns in 2018 and 2019 each. 2020 is on track to meet that milestone as well.
But in India and elsewhere, research has shown that internet outages don’t actually reduce violence and misinformation. They may actually be having the opposite effect, by contributing to a shift from peaceful, orderly protest to disorganized, chaotic unrest. In the spectacular case of Egypt in 2011, the internet shutdown actually dispersed protesters from Tahrir Square into numerous smaller demonstrations that police could not contain. This brought down the Mubarak government.