Boasting 'Digital India' - Shutting Down The Internet

India's cutting digital access for political reasons also costs livelihood for small businesses, women's safety, access to transport, food, education and almost every other aspect of a modern life.

Checking if service is restored in Kashmir
Checking if service is restored in Kashmir
Mishi Choudhary

NEW DELHI — On August 5, 2019, the government of India revoked the special status granted under Article 370 of the Indian constitution to Jammu and Kashmir. A day before, a communication blockade that cut off the entire state's internet, landline, mobile and SMS communication as a preventive measure was imposed.

Last Saturday, after 158 days, the Supreme Court of India called the internet a fundamental right. Though it made some interesting observations, the Court didn't provide any immediate relief on the continuing mobile internet ban, leaving it to the executive to review all orders within a week.

In December, countrywide protests opposing the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) started paving the way for a number of shutdowns in several states including Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and even the national capital, New Delhi.

Rules for such suspension of internet services exist under the Information Technology Act and Indian Telegraph Act. These are rarely followed owing to their "cumbersome" periodic reviews and due process of some degree. Even when orders are issued under these rules, they are often in clear violation of the procedures prescribed therein.

Most of these orders are issued by the State Police or District Magistrate under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (CrPC). If you have followed any protest, you may have come across this section.

This section resides as the sole occupant under the chapter of "temporary measures to maintain public tranquility" and gives state governments the power to issue orders for immediate remedy in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger. Per the law laid down by the Supreme Court, the power under Section 144 of the CrPC is to be used with caution and only when there is "an actual and prominent threat endangering public order and tranquility."

It should neither be arbitrary, nor subvert the rights protected by the Constitution.

But the frequency with which such orders are issued, one would think the law is relegated to being a "suggestion" instead of law.

There is no easy way of capturing the human cost of these shutdowns.

The Supreme Court made some important observations on the use of this provision in a judgment it delivered on Friday: "The power under Section 144, Cr.P.C. cannot be used to suppress legitimate expression of opinion or grievance or exercise of any democratic rights' but only practical experience on the ground will tell if these words will translate into real action."

New Delhi based legal services organization, – which I founded and served until 2017 – maintains a real-time map of ongoing internet shutdowns in India at along with resources for people to report shutdowns affecting them and information on the legalities and economic effects of these shutdowns.

Per the tracker, India recorded at least 381 instances of complete network disruption in one or more areas between 2012-2020. These unusually high numbers have turned India into the shutdown capital of the world, highlighting that these negative expressions of digital sovereignty are not just for undemocratic societies any more.

There is no easy way of capturing the human cost of these shutdowns. All we have are crowd sourced stories, videos, messages and anecdotes sent by the affected parties through archaic means.

In Kashmir, a Whatsapp group titled ‘Save Heart Kashmir" has been inactive owing to the five months long shutdown. Started in 2017, with now over 1,000 doctors, the group had become an essential place for doctors to exchange patient reports, offer advice and exchange information on medical resources.

On Thursday, Jammu and Kashmir State Board of School Education declared the results for Class 10 examination but students from the state were not able to access them due to the internet shutdown. For anyone who has appeared in those dreadful exams, you can imagine the anxiety of those students. A group of students have been forced to establish a volunteer helpline wherein students check results online in a connected area and inform students about their fate.

Women have been sending in videos on how even a temporary suspension of access to internet makes them feel unsafe as they aren't able to connect with family, inform about their whereabouts, bank online or call cabs conveniently, a service they have come to depend upon. Stories about loss of livelihood for small businesses who rely on messaging apps to receive and deliver orders are piling up at an alarming rate.

Numbers alone don't humanize these losses but we can say, using data collected by several parties around the world, that just between 2014 and the end of 2015, internet shutdowns cost Indian businesses almost $1 billion when the number of recorded shutdowns was merely 14 and 31 respectively in contrast to the three digit figured that we have for the years 2018 and 2019.

A recent investigative report by Top10Vpn estimates that full economic impact of internet shutdowns in India is at least $1.3 billion.

Digital India is now a reality. The advances in technology have ensured that family life, human relations, personal and professional lives are dependent on the availability of digital communications.

Losing internet access is more than just losing ability to stream your favorite movie or playing a video game. It now means livelihood for small businessmen and women, online banking, women's safety, access to transport, food, education and almost every other aspect of a modern life.

But living in Digital India seems less of blessing than a curse as government seems capable of bringing everyone's lives to a standstill with one order.

Governments have this mistaken idea that the way to shut down the internet generation is to shut down the internet. The government of India cannot push for Digital India on one hand and use the kill switch to turn it off with the other. How we cope with this issue will have much to say about whether Digital India is also a Democratic India.

Mishi Choudhary is a technology lawyer with practice in New York and New Delhi.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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