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Banning internet to stop provocation is like blaming science for bombings

A government intrusion on Friday night disrupted the Internet services in entire Barak Valley circle. An outright ban on Internet in South Assam, an unprecedented move, something that never happened in the history of Barak Valley. If a senior official in BSNL is to be believed then the notice that was served to Internet service providers asking them to ban Internet service in the vicinity was signed by the Governor of Assam. I did not see the letter, but the official had no reason to lie. Irrespective of who signed the letter, it is certain that an administrative diktat kept Barak Valley citizen deprived of Internet for a period of more than 84 hours. How necessary and the most important question how justified was the move?

Before we even think about finding an answer to the above mentioned question, it is important for us to understand what happened. Friday evening at around 5:30 PM, Hailakandi DC Keerthi Jalli, gave a statement to one of the news channels on record. She summarised that there was no communal riot instead it was a “couple of miscreants” who created a ruckus. Everything is normal and people of Hailakandi should keep calm and report to Police immediately if they face any problem. However, by then, a curfew was clamped in entire district following an alleged communal clash between two particular communities. Clearly, it was not just a “couple of miscreants” creating ruckus as no administration requires a curfew to nab a few miscreants. What exactly happened? Let us not speculate and instead wait for the administration to officially investigate the matter and brief us.

 

Same Friday night at around 9:00 pm, the Internet services got disconnected. Few intellectuals, most of them in their 60s and 70s welcomed the decision of an outright ban on Internet the next afternoon (as per the news broadcast on AIR). All of them were attending a peace meeting called by DC Cachar Laya Madduri. One common sentence that echoed was “Internet is filled with hatred and provocative messages.” The obvious error in this statement is that the Internet is being treated as a platform and not a medium. To me, it looks like this error in understanding is the reason why Internet becomes the villain every time there is an issue related to law and order and netizens are generalised and “online extremists” propagating hatred.

 

To clear this let’s put it into perspective, FACEBOOK IS NOT INTERNET, INTERNET IS NOT FACEBOOK. Similarly, WHATSAPP IS NOT INTERNET AND INTERNET IS NOT WHATSAPP. A human being or a bot cannot propagate hatred through the Internet as it is not a platform but a medium of connectivity. If the Government had identified that hatred was propagated through WhatsApp or Facebook or any other Social Media platforms, it could have banned such platforms, why put a blanket ban on Internet at a time when the Prime Minister of the country is encouraging Digital India and wants the country to move towards cashless economy.

 

We all remember the massacre in Sri Lanka that took place on Easter Sunday earlier this year. The government realised that hatred was propagated through Social Media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp and it immediately enforced a temporary ban on both social media platforms. Same happened last night too. Following attacks on religious establishments in Sri Lanka, the government banned Facebook and WhatsApp while Twitter continues to work, as the administration did not find a violation of conduct from users of that platform. Same was done in Christchurch, New Zealand after the gunman attacked the mosque and streamed it live on Facebook.

 

No body is denying the existence of extremists on Social Media platforms, but not all subscribe to Internet to use Social Media and spread hatred, why put an outright ban on Internet and not restrict particular platforms used for provocation. I am sure hatred was not propagated through internet banking, emails, Google Pay, YouTube, billions of tutorials, online applications in several colleges, Netflix, Amazon Prime, PubG and thousands of other things that one uses Internet for.

 

This blanket ban on Internet made another thing very clear that the so called cyber surveillance team we keep reading and hearing about is incompetant at best and nonexistent at worse. If there is a team of competent experts why would you ban the whole service instead of finding a solution to a particular problem. I, staying in Mumbai could foresee something violent happening on Friday in Hailakandi. There were plenty of posts which suggested a massive gathering was going to take place at the mosque in Marwari Patti, there were counter arguments too. With zero knowledge on cyber crime, if I could foresee the unforeseen sitting in Mumbai, what was the surveillance team in Hailakandi or Cachar doing. Instead of turning a blind eye on Social Media and banning Internet, in my opinion, the administration must try and understand activities on those platforms in order to prevent communal clashes or neutralise terrorist recruitment programmes.

 

In the largest democracy of the world when an administration is forced to ban a service like Internet it is not something that intellectuals should welcome in 2019. There is a platform like QuickObook running in Silchar, through which doctor’s appointments are booked, There is a service called Medonline which delivers medicine at home and that needs Internet. There is 100minutes and many other food aggregators and delivery platforms… Internet is not only porn, entertainment and provocation.

 

As per information given by the government in Lok Sabha, there are 10.25 million Internet users in Assam (December 2018), if we consider 20% of them are from Barak Valley, which is around 20 lakh users, it is a huge number we are talking about. Are we sure that everyone was propagating hatred. In fact, Aminul Haque Laskar, Parimal Suklabaidya used Internet to upload videos on Facebook to appeal for peace. We must not forget the financial loss attached to it, if we consider the average revenue per user (APRU) of mobile data users to be Rs 180 then each customer pay Rs 6 per day to get access to mobile data which means Rs 21 for three and half days. The cumulative loss considering 20 lakh users in Barak Valley as the base happens to be Rs four crore and twenty lakh (Rs 4,20,00,000). Will the administration reimburse customers? The prepaid customers validity will run down automatically whenever the tenure gets over, will the administration ensure an extended validity?

 

I don’t blame the administration alone, these peace meetings that take place every time there is an issue related to law and order are extremely important. It plays a vital role as the intellectuals represent the mood of the mass which provides direction to the administration.

 

However, 65% of India is aged below 35 years old. How many below 35-year-olds are invited to attend these meetings? Intellectuals do not mean people belonging to a particular age-group, a 16-year-old hacker understands Internet far better than a poet or an industrialist in their mid 60s and early 70s using feature phones. There are intellectuals across all age groups and they should be involved in these meetings.

 

To sum up, British Government recently found out that a young boy bought most of the ingredients to make high explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP) online through e-commerce giants like Amazon. They arrested the boy and trial begun. Neither Internet nor the e-commerce websites were banned. In India, the Home Ministry enforced ban on production, sale and dispersal of about 328 fixed dose combinations of drugs (FDCs) last year, it neither enforced a ban on medical practice nor did it shut all the chemists selling medicines in India. If a bike rider overspeeds and hits the divider, will the administration enforce a ban on motorcycles or will cut the road apart? Just because hundreds died consuming illicit liquor in Assam, did the government ban the sale of liquor in the state? If not, then why ban Internet just because a few “miscreants created ruckus”?

 

Banning internet to stop provocation is like blaming science for bombings. Can you justify blaming science for bombings. If not banning Internet for 84 hours was unjust too.

 

The views in the article are personal thoughts of the author who is a journalist by profession and work as special correspondent at afaqs!. Barak Bulletin does not necessarily subscribe to the views put forward.

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