The #KeepItOn coalition and Access Now, together with 41 international rights groups from around the world, have released an open letter urgently calling on the government of India to restore access to 4G high-speed internet as a first step towards the containment of the COVID-19 virus and related health needs. The signatories’ urgent appeal to the government of India includes:
- Immediately restoring high-speed 4G internet access to full capacity
- Lifting all restrictions on the internet and all telecommunication tools unconditionally
- Exploring the innovative ways in which internet access can contribute to containing the spread of COVID-19
- Implementing judicial recommendations to review the legal framework around suspending telecom networks
The ongoing restriction of high-speed internet connectivity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is hindering health professionals and the residents of Jammu and Kashmir from accessing accurate and timely information being rolled out by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other experts aimed at containing the virus. Media reports indicate that doctors and other health workers who are at the front line fighting to prevent the spread of the virus are struggling to download intensive care management guidelines published on various digital platforms in the country. Research by experts in India has also shown that the existing restrictions on 4G connectivity make access to video conferencing – currently a critical lifeline throughout India and much of the world – virtually impossible to effectively access and use.
“Disrupting internet access during this critical period will prevent people from accessing timely information about the COVID-19 virus, thereby aiding its spread and gambling with people’s lives,” says Felicia Anthonio, Access Now’s Campaigner, #KeepItOn Lead.
The Jammu and Kashmir administration – currently directly reporting to the Indian Union Government – resorted to prohibiting 4G networks and slowing down internet speed to 2G in the regions of Jammu and Kashmir in March 2020, after a judgement from the Supreme Court in January 2020 forced an end to a seven-month blanket internet shutdown.
Judicial authorities in India have already ordered the government to explain its position and rationale behind the restriction on full-speed internet access which is impacting people’s fundamental rights during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Foundation for Media Professionals has filed a renewed legal petition that is currently before the Supreme Court of India.
“The Union Government should use the opportunity presented by this Supreme Court hearing and immediately rescind its orders restricting 4G connectivity in Jammu and Kashmir. The continuation of these restrictions harms not only fundamental rights and democratic values, it greatly imperils medical response to the COVID-19 pandemic and further aggravates the already challenging situation faced by residents in lockdown,” says Raman Jit Singh Chima, Access Now’s Asia Pacific Policy Director.
The petitioners have denounced this deliberate attempt by the authorities in India to deny residents of Jammu and Kashmir access to essential information during the COVID-19 pandemic as a flagrant violation of human rights that puts their lives at risk, and equally threatens public health across India and the world.
Since 2016, the #KeepItOn coalition – more than 210 organizations from 70+ countries around the world – has been fighting internet shutdowns with all kinds of creative approaches, including grassroots advocacy, direct policy-maker engagement, technical support, and legal intervention.