Imagine what an internet blackout would mean to you: shut out of messaging sites, forced off social media, deprived of news, information and the means to contact loved ones.

Now imagine you are Kashmiri, and the Indian government has left you in the dark for four months now. Or you are Iranian, and you have just experienced your most serious internet shutdown ever.

Both shutdowns were imposed by governments that said they were trying to prevent "security threats". Critics say it is about silencing dissent and deliberately severing connections between people as a form of collective punishment.

Blackouts are now a standard feature in the government internet playbook and an increasingly common response.

In Kashmir and Iran, the blackouts have been criticised as a means of trying to control the narrative and flow of information about what was happening inside the country.

"These are two very extended internet shutdowns that happen around a political crisis in a country," says Adrian Shahbaz, Research Director for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House.

"What's marked these two shutdowns was just how long that they have lasted and sort of the humanitarian and economic cost that they have wrought on the population."

Srinagar, Kashmir is the unofficial internet shutdown capital of the world. According to a Delhi-based non-profit, the Software Freedom Law Centre, Narendra Modi's government has cut off mobile and internet services to the region 55 times this year alone.

The latest blackout has lasted so long that Kashmiris have become unintended casualties of protocols policed by the messaging app WhatsApp, according to which any account that has been inactive for 120 days is automatically deactivated by the company.

"What has been unprecedented is the scale of it," says Akriti Bopanna from The Centre for Internet & Society. "I mean, these measures were not even taken during the wars."

The impact of the shutdown has cut across many layers of society, says Bopanna. "An array of activities that have been affected, from education to medicine to just communication within family members," she adds.

Iran may shut down internet access far less often than India, but when the shutdowns do take place, they are comprehensive. When fuel price hikes led to flash demonstrations in November - and the security forces' response cost the lives of 130 protesters - it took only 24 hours for internet connectivity to plummet to 5 percent of normal levels.

Mahsa Alimardani, researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, says this is not simply a matter of flicking a "kill switch".

"This was basically coordination across all the internet service providers in Iran," says Alimardani. "It wasn't a kill switch. It didn't happen immediately."

Forcing ISPs to take orders is one way to control the internet. Another way is to create your own. China and North Korea are among a number of countries to have their own national intranets in place, and Iran is following suit.

Intranets allow a government to unilaterally cut off its citizens from content that the rest of the world sees. UN experts consider this a breach of basic human rights, events in Kashmir "a form of collective punishment", and Iranians as having been deprived "not only of a fundamental freedom but also basic access to essential services".

"I think in this day and age, given the ways in which the internet is utilised for everything from banking and economic services to personal communication and everything in between, we do have to consider access to the internet as a human right," says Jillian C York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"We should not allow governments like Iran's to restrict access for its citizens. People need to be able to communicate, they need to be able to access services and so shutting down the entire internet should absolutely be off-limits."

Produced by Tariq Nafi


Adrian Shahbaz - research director for Technology and Democracy, Freedom House

Akriti Bopanna - The Centre for Internet & Society

Mahsa Alimardani - researcher, Oxford Internet Institute and Iran Researcher, Article 19

Jillian C York - Electronic Frontier Foundation

Source: Al Jazeera News