India leads the world in terms of choking cyberspace by shutting off access to the internet when controversial information, or misinformation, that risks fomenting unrest surfaces amid a rise in religion-based hate crime
, raising concern about censorship among Catholic bishops and rights activists. A Nov. 12 report on internet and digital media freedom in 65 countries by the U.S.-based non-profit Freedom House ranked India the worst offender after it blocked access to the web on at least 100 occasions this year alone. While China still tops the table
in terms of internet surveillance, censorship, content control and blocked websites, India rules the roost when it comes to simply making the internet temporarily "disappear." The Freedom House report said the federal government has been increasingly restricting people's access to information online since 2010. This sparked rallies by Hindu nationalists in Mumbai in August 2012 after their pro-Hindu solidarity web portal was shut down just a week after the government ordered internet service providers to block 309 web pages, images and links on sites including Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, news channel ABC of Australia and Qatar-based Al-Jazeera. The government also temporarily shuts down telecom networks during riots and protests, claiming the measures are needed to stop the spread of rumors and disinformation that could incite violence against minorities.
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"The frequency, geographic distribution, and duration of those shutdowns have increased significantly in the past four years, since the Narendra Modi-led government came to power in 2014," the report said. Indian Catholic bishops' conference spokesperson Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas
told ucanews.com the government must understand that trying to seal off information online to prevent riots and protests cannot be seen as a long-term solution. "It is hatred that is causing problem in the country. If the government stops people from spreading hate, it wouldn't need to choke off the internet," he said. Local Catholic leader Joseph Dias said the report, which highlights the frequency of these so-called internet gags, should worry the government, too. "If they don't act now and take remedial measures, the [positive] image of India as one of the world's fastest-growing economies will be compromised," he said. "The time will come when the world won't pay any attention to India's development claims at all." Meanwhile, as many countries rush to adopt 5G systems, many Indians still struggle to gain access to slower speeds of connectivity. "This trend is not good for the country and there seems to be a move afoot to control the internet and suit vested interests as far as speed and reach is concerned," Joseph said. For Sanjeev Sharma, a Mumbai-based blogger, this heavy-handed approach to internet freedom violates international laws and conventions. "What we are seeing in India is a violation of people's human rights that has no justification. This is going to be detrimental to democracy," Sharma said. The trend is rampant in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab, Rajasthan, Maharashtra , Gujarat, Nagaland and Haryana. According to another report titled "Living in Digital Darkness in India," compiled by the Software Freedom Law Center, between 2012 and 2018 India heavily restricted internet access no fewer than 172 times in 19 states. The number of sites shut down almost doubled each year during this period, it found. The center said that 47 of these cases lasted fewer than 24 hours, 38 ran between one and three days, and 37 lasted longer than this. Another report by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, which quantitatively assessed the economic impact of internet shutdowns across India, projects an economic loss of US$3.04 billion as a result of this from 2012-17. A separate report by Deloitte and the Global Network Initiative found that any country with a relatively high level of internet connectivity stands to lose at least 1.9 percent of its daily GDP on average each day it closes down a significant number of internet services. The federal government launched its Digital India campaign in 2015, encouraging businesses to rapidly adopt online business models, which has made the shutdowns even more frustrating and costly. "A majority of the business houses in India are directly or indirectly dependent on the internet. Disruptions affect the entire economic existence of these businesses," said e-commerce website owner Aamir Kanth. Government figures show that India has 460 million internet users, representing 26 percent of its 1.2 billion people. This makes it the world's second-largest online market after China. Estimates show that by 2022 India is expected to have some 635.8 million internet users.