Content note: the following post contains reference to sexual assault, abuse, violence, sexism, misogyny, and murder.
Nations across the Asia Pacific region, and the world, must ensure people can access open and free internet when they need it the most — during important national events and times of crisis. We urge authorities across India to #KeepItOn at all times.
We, the undersigned, including members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network that unites over 300 organisations from 105 countries to end internet shutdowns — write to demand that internet access be fully restored across Manipur. All internet shutdowns violate a range of human rights, and a continuous, over 100-day shutdown is flagrant and unacceptable.
As protests and conflict expanded across the state by May 3, authorities ordered a shutdown of all mobile networks. A blanket ban on all internet services, including broadband networks, was soon added in an order on May 4. This shutdown order has been reapplied at least 16 times since, changing in scope but still delivering a disproportionate and unnecessary punishment to millions of people. Applying exemptions to certain broadband customers – largely urban and institutional – exacerbates inequities, as the mobile internet and social media shutdown is still in full force, affecting a much larger percentage of the population. Furthermore, a recent shutdown order from July 25 shows a list of “safeguards” that exist only to broaden the government’s censorship through an open-ended blocking of social media sites and VPNs.
Internet shutdowns shroud attacks and gender-based violence
The effects of the ongoing shutdown have been immense and irreversible. As research has shown, shutdowns fail at their goal of decreasing the spread of inciting hate speech and violence, and are likely to inflame tensions and increase violence and instability. The shutdown has given cover for atrocities, including murder, rape, gender-based violence and arson, with women often as targets of brutality. In July, the central government broke its silence on the violence in Manipur following protests by women’s rights groups in the country, spurred by a video depicting a sexual assault in early May. The extended shutdown in Manipur not only provided cover for sexual violence in the early days of the conflict, but prevented the reporting of gender-based violence (GBV) in a country where physical and online violence against women continues to escalate. Our monitoring underscores that internet shutdowns prevent reporting and enable authorities or perpetrators to evade accountability for human rights abuses committed against people.
Internet shutdowns violate national and international human rights frameworks
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted: “Switching off the internet causes incalculable damage, both in material and human rights terms” while “the costs to jobs, education, health and political participation virtually always exceed any hoped for benefit.”
The continuing restrictions on mobile internet services, social media and VPNs in Manipur violate fundamental rights. The Indian Supreme Court has recognised the importance of connectivity to realise Constitutionally protected rights, and held that it can be restricted only when it is necessary, proportionate, and the least restrictive measure, and can never be indefinite. The impediments to internet access in Manipur fail on all these counts.
Shutdowns also deepen the digital divide, as they disproportionately affect mobile internet subscribers, and those in rural areas. The Indian government’s vision of ‘Digital India’, and rapid expansion of digital public infrastructure, is at odds with the rampant imposition of internet shutdowns in the country, which deprive millions of access to public schemes, services and benefits.
The Indian Constitution as well as international frameworks to which India is signatory including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights all provide for the protection and promotion of the rights of freedom of opinion and expression, assembly, and access to information — both offline and online. Moreover, the UN Secretary General and experts affirm that, “blanket Internet shutdowns and generic blocking and filtering of services are considered by United Nations human rights mechanisms to be in violation of international human rights law.” The Manipur Human Rights Commission recommended restoration of internet access in June 2023 in light of the impact on the right to free speech and expression.
We, the undersigned organisations, reiterate our calls to the authorities across all levels of government in India to stop imposing internet shutdowns, particularly during times of crises, and do everything in their power to protect people from gender-based and sexual violence. Each individual should have unhampered access to the internet, and consequently the ability to exercise their fundamental rights. India remains the leading perpetrator of internet shutdowns and censorship globally, a trend which is dangerous for human rights and digital development in the country. We urge the authorities to find lasting solutions to crises rather than normalising the weaponisation of internet shutdowns.
- Access Now
- Africa Media and Information Technology Initiative (AFRIMITI)
- Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation
- African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX)
- Alliance for Vietnam’s Democracy
- Article19 West Africa
- Censored Planet
- Center for Media studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP-Liberia)
- Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD Ethiopia)
- Centre for Community Empowerment and Development
- Centre for Multilateral Affairs (CfMA)
- Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
- Common Cause Zambia
- Computech Institute
- Digital Rights Kashmir
- Digital Woman Uganda
- Freedom House
- Global Digital Inclusion Partnership (GDIP)
- Innovation for Change (I4C) South Asia
- Internet Freedom Foundation
- Kijiji Yeetu
- Life campaign to abolish the death sentence in Kurdistan
- Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)
- Miaan Group
- OONI (Open Observatory of Network Interference)
- OpenNet Africa
- Organization of the Justice Campaign
- Paradigm Initiative (PIN)
- PEN America
- Software Freedom Law Center, India
- The Nubian Rights Forum
- Zaina Foundation