In the 21st century world revolutionised by Information Technology, the Internet has become the preferred and most widely used mode of communication. Many human rights activists and scholars, including the United Nations, have supported the claim that access to the Internet is a human right. In many countries like Estonia, Finland, France, Greece and Spain, the Right to Internet Access has already been declared a human right. The underlying argument is that the Internet is essential for life in the 21st century. The Right to the Internet can also be seen as an integral part of pre-existing fundamental and Constitutional rights like Right to Freedom of speech and expression, Right to Healthcare, Right to Trade, Right to Education and even Right to Life. Under the Indian Constitution, the State is responsible for ensuring these rights and any restrictions on the same need to pass the tests of ‘proportionality’ and ‘reasonableness’. In light of this context, this article attempts to analyse the role of Internet access in the backdrop of a global pandemic and the state-announced lockdown measures.
The Coronavirus global pandemic has taken over the lives of the people of the world. It has effectively and drastically changed the way people live their lives. One way to understand the role of the Internet in today’s world would be to look at Kashmir for the past one year. The situation in Kashmir is not the same as it is in rest of India, where information is free, accessible and unrestricted to a large extent. It has not been in Kashmir for a long time. After the effective abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution of India and the conversion of the State of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories on 5th August 2019, Internet access has been restricted in the region. The effective restriction, (suspension in some areas) has been justified by the government in the name of ‘national security’ : to mitigate the threat of terrorism, militancy and “anti-national” activities. Over a period of almost seven months the restrictions have been gradually eased but not completely removed.
In Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, the court held that access to information and freedom to trade via the internet are fundamental rights directed the authorities to review the restrictions imposed in Kashmir.The people in Kashmir were struggling to even communicate with their loved ones for months as stringent restrictions were imposed. All economic activity had to suffer, and online businesses were forced to close. Students were unable to access education, as schools shifted online and doctors in hospitals found it difficult to communicate and access reliable and latest information about the novel coronavirus.
The Internet is a readily available and convenient source of information and has become the preferred mode for people to express themselves, disseminate information, for education, political participation, commerce, personal activity, etc. During a pandemic, which is spreading around the world and the government is releasing new and novel measures to fight the virus, the Internet has become a vital source of information. According to an analysis by ‘The Print’, the Central and State governments have together released more than 3000 rules and notifications in relation to Covid-19. States are declaring new norms every day regarding classification of containment zones, red zones, relaxation of lockdown rules, safety rules and other important information. Most of this information reaches the common man through the internet. The Internet has also empowered citizens to become reporters themselves and can speedily share important local information which may miss the eyes of the traditional press. During lockdowns, the Internet has become the only medium through which people can communicate with one another, assemble with like-minded people and share information.
Right to Information, an integral exponent of Article 19 is essential for any democracy but it becomes extremely important that this right of citizens is protected in an environment where ‘Information, more than ever is not only power but also a means to protect one’s life’. The restriction that has been imposed on the Internet speed of postpaid mobile users makes it almost impossible for people in Kashmir to access the Internet on their mobile devices. Mobile phones are the primary mode for accessing the Internet in India and in Jammu & Kashmir where there are as many as 1.13 crore cellular subscribers. 2G technology is outdated and does not allow effective use of the Internet as many websites wouldn’t load on this speed including the social media websites.
The pandemic has also exaggerated the role of the internet in the education sector. With schools and colleges being shut for months, education has found a new platform- video conferencing apps. For the past few months, students and teachers have miraculously adjusted to ‘online education’, which has permeated every school activity, from classes to exams to even school celebrations. The millions of students who do not have access to stable internet or the required technological tools have been completely left out in this new set-up. This lack of access would only widen the gap between the privileged and the non-privileged. Which is ironic, As the internet was always seen as a tool that would bridge the gap of equality, and broadening the scope of accessibility to resources.
The Internet empowers its users to participate in global economic and social activities. In today’s world when global connectivity has collapsed in the physical world, the only means of staying connected is the Internet. Students admitted in foreign universities are able to attend classes in their home countries, parents are able to see their children, businessmen are able to conduct their meetings and lawyers are able to talk to clients, without ever leaving their countries. This is the miracle of the Internet that has allowed us to survive this pandemic. It has also helped in mobilising people and keeping a check on the various human rights concerns that are arising because of the tragic consequences of disconnectivity, loss of economic and social life and the spread of the virus.Of the wide range of available tools, the Internet was undoubtedly the most widely recognized and utilized digital technological tool used to propagate information. But, during the pandemic the Internet has become the only legitimate tool for doing anything to everything.