The True Cost of Internet Shutdowns in South Asia

The World Wide Web turned 33 last month, so I spent some time reading the arguments for making the Internet a basic human right. The ideas seem fantastic to me sitting in South Asia, where the internet increasingly feels like the personal property of governments that choose to cut off access whenever it suits them.

In recent years, governments in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have restricted internet access for their citizens for reasons ranging from suppressing dissent and controlling the flow of information to preventing cheating during school exams.

In 2021, India, South Asia’s most populous country, was responsible for the most internet shutdowns globally – for a fourth year in a row, according to a recent report by digital rights nonprofit Access Now. In Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), 4.5 million people were without internet for over 2,000 days between 2016 and 2021. And just last month, Sri Lanka blocked social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube and Viber in a bid to contain protests over the ongoing economic crisis, among other things.

It’s not about not being able to endlessly scroll through social media. These Internet shutdowns have serious consequences. They are “a distressing indicator of the willingness of government agencies to separate and deepen the suffering of their own people,” Access Now said. In Pakistan’s FATA, internet shutdowns “almost destroyed education, health and business opportunities for the already isolated local groups, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Last week as part of rest of the world Comprehensive project on internet outages, we published a story about the Indian region of Kashmir, which experienced 85 internet outages in 2021. The story lays out what the inability to access the Internet can do to small businesses and ordinary people’s dreams.

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