The World Wide Web turned 33 last month, so I spent some time reading the arguments in favor of declaring the internet a basic human right. The ideas seem fantastical to me, sitting in South Asia, where the internet increasingly feels like the personal estate of governments that decide to shut off access whenever it suits them.
In recent years, the 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 discouraging cheating during school exams.
In 2021, India, the most populous country in South Asia, was responsible for the highest number of internet shutdowns globally — for a fourth consecutive year, according to a recently released report by digital rights nonprofit Access Now. In Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), 4.5 million people could not access the 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, among others, to contain protests over the ongoing economic crisis.
This isn’t about not being able to endlessly scroll through social media. These internet shutdowns have serious ramifications. They are “an agonizing indicator of the willingness of government authorities to disconnect and deepen the suffering of their own people,” Access Now said. In Pakistan’s FATA, internet shutdowns “almost destroyed the education, health care, and business opportunities for the already isolated local groups, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Last week, as part of Rest of World’s exhaustive project on internet blackouts, we published a story about India’s Kashmir region, which saw 85 internet shutdowns in 2021. The story lays out what the inability to access the internet can do to small businesses and the dreams of regular people.