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A man broadcasts a livestream in support of the new Indian Citizenship Law in New Delhi on December 25th.
Last week, after the Indian government cut off mobile Internet access in one state after another when furious protests broke out against a law against Muslim citizenship, I panicked a WhatsApp message to a colleague.
"Is there a chance in hell that Delhi would lose the internet?"
For days I had watched the authorities plunge districts across the country into the digital darkness. On December 10, distant districts in the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura went offline, a day later parts of the neighboring Assam followed. Authorities blocked Internet access to stop protests against a law passed by India's Hindu nationalist government this week. This made it easier for immigrants who practice all major South Asian religions except Islam to obtain Indian citizenship. People who are against the law say that it destroys India's secular ethos.
Internet shutdowns in India are not new. Local, state and national authorities across the country have been shutting down the Internet for years when the first signs of trouble arise. They turned it off during the Rajasthan state exam season last year just to prevent students from cheating. And Kashmir, whose legal autonomy the Indian government suddenly abolished earlier this year, has been under siege since August, making it the longest internet shutdown ever in a democracy.
Still, I thought it couldn't happen in the capital, could it? After all, Delhi is not just me, but more than 20 million people, the Indian Parliament, national and international media, diplomats and more.
"No, I don't think so," my colleague replied.
On an icy Thursday morning, days after our conversation, people across New Delhi began tweeting about dead networks. First there was confusion, then shock and anger when India's largest mobile networks declared themselves: they followed an order from the police instructing them to turn off voice, text messaging and internet services in dozens of the districts of Delhi. that demonstrators like 37-year-old Shakaib Azhar Chaudhry had difficulty mobilizing with their cell phones. Chaudhry, an educational advisor who participated in five protests in New Delhi the week he spoke to BuzzFeed News, is part of six WhatsApp groups in which dissidents share information about people's legal rights when they do to be arrested by the police about the best exit routes, news and more. Last week, when protesters in New Delhi read the preamble to the Indian Constitution, most people pulled out a copy that was divided into WhatsApp groups they were in.
"The internet is becoming a support system like this at times," said Chaudhry, adding that he was against the new law because it singled out Muslims like him.
Eight years after the first shutdown of the Internet, India had finally reached the state capital. What used to be used to control the periphery has now been used to control the core.
What used to be used to control the periphery has now been used to control the core.
At the beginning of the decade, just over a hundred million Indians were connected to the Internet. Few people in the country could afford desktop computers, and broadband was prohibitively expensive. By the end of the decade, more than half a billion Indians were online. Part of this explosion was the result of efforts by Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google to bring the "next billion" online. In the middle of the decade, Google brought free Wi-Fi to hundreds of Indian train stations while Facebook turned up
But in recent years, cheap data has come thanks to a telecom war that cut prices to pennies and a flood of cheap Android devices. Smartphones India made the market The fastest growing internet market in the world – and the wet dream of Silicon Valley. In the 2010s, the country changed from a digital wasteland to a big city. Suddenly we had Uber! Amazon! Prime! Alexa! Netflix! YouTube you can see without buffering! Swipe right! Our own unicorns provided meals and let us zap money digitally! High. Definition. Porn!
"The changes the smartphone brought to the West were incremental," Ravi Agrawal, former head of the Indian office and author of the book India Connected, told BuzzFeed News. “If you were a middle-class American, you would probably already have a PC, a phone line, a camcorder, or a music player. Getting a smartphone consolidated the things you already had. "For Indians, the smartphone was the first camera, the first television, the first library and the first newspaper for people." For westerners, the smartphone was evolutionary, but for Indians it was revolutionary. "
" For young Indians, smartphones are literal and visual mobility today, "wrote Agrawal in his book." The smartphone is the embodiment of the new Indian dream. "When I spoke to him, Agrawal called the smartphone by far the" most transformative development in India in the past 10 years ".
But like India ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP, who has penetrated deeper into authoritarianism, the smartphone is now forcing another transformation – for millions of young Indians, it has become an instrument for dissent.
Sajjad Hussain / Getty Images
Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the Citizenship Change Law in Guwahati, India, on December 13.
When Modi won the election for the first time in 2014, fewer than 300 million Indians were online. Modi rose to power in a wave of nationalism and promised to lead the country to economic prosperity. However, the BJP was also the first major political party in India to use the internet and social media to measure public opinion and build support. The Financial Times called him India's first “prime minister for social media”.
In a blog post that was published shortly after his victory, Modi wrote: “This is the first choice in which social media have assumed an important role and importance. This medium will only increase in the coming years. He added that "our party, our campaign and I personally have benefited enormously from social media. “
This remark would be predictable. Modi's reign on the Internet was marked by extreme polarization, orchestrated harassment campaigns against critics and a flood of misinformation and propaganda that pumped party fans into private WhatsApp groups. "Proud to be followed by @narendramodi," was the Twitter bios of hundreds of the Prime Minister's eager supporters.
"India used social media to infect its democracy long before Trump was elected," said Mishi Choudhary, founder of the Software Freedom Law Center, an advocacy organization that works in India's internet policy field. "They really understood how to use social media to control narratives about the economy or their politics."
"India used social media to infect its democracy long before Trump was elected."
But the Internet boom in India in recent years has also spawned a new type of influencer: the young digital dissident.
Since the protests began in the second week of December, Aranya Johar has spent all the money days stuck on her Android phone. The 21-year-old slam poet and Instagram influencer, who lives in Mumbai, reported on feminism, gender and sexual positivity to almost 100,000 viewers. But now, as she unfolds her phone's settings and clicks the screen time feature that logs usage, the number even surprises her: an average of 12 and a half hours a day since the protests started. Johar used her platform to spread voices against the government and information about upcoming protests.
"It is my moral responsibility," she told BuzzFeed News. The bar graphs show which apps she used most – on the first day of the protests, her most used app was YouTube, but when she was following the news, sharing information with friends, and posting pictures of protests she was participating in, she was up their list was dominated by Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram.
Friends, please keep in mind that we have WhatsApp stories and Facebook available. Feel free to share messages there so they can reach people. If you feel helpless, you should be aware that sharing information is a great way to help.
05:18 – 21.12.2019
Twitter: @sokneeoh / Via Twitter: @sokneeoh
Dhruv Rathee, a 25-year-old Indian, lives "somewhere in Europe" (Rathee said he prefers to keep his location private). In recent years, Rathee has become one of the best YouTubers in India by posting videos that spoil government propaganda, criticize the BJP guidelines, and review misinformation spread by government supporters online. At the time of publication, he had 2.72 million YouTube subscribers, over 400,000 Twitter followers and more than 910,000 followers on Facebook. In his videos, Rathee looks straight into the camera and breaks down his analysis into simple Hindi with English subtitles. Most videos are viewed millions of times.
85 percent of his viewers in India see him on their cell phones, Rathee told BuzzFeed News, saying he sees a direct link between the rise of modes, the explosion of Internet users in India, and his own popularity on the Internet.
"I think I'm also popular because India's mainstream media has gotten worse over the years," he said. India's media has been criticized for leading the Modi government since taking office as prime minister in 2014. "People who criticize the government cannot find them on television channels or newspapers." That is why they see us on the Internet as the only alternative. I don't think I would have been so popular if the media had done their job. “
Others, like Kunal Kamra, have built a successful career in stand-up comedy by risking the wrath of BJP supporters and viciously with more than 660,000 followers on his Twitter account funny about the prime minister and BJP apparatchiks. Every Kamra zinger against the government gets thousands of likes and retweets on Twitter. Last week Kamra got the last word in a quote-tweet fight against a BJP spokesman: "BJP is Nazi Germany." The tweet received more than 34,700 likes and 8,000 retweets. Kamra did not respond to BuzzFeed News comment requests.
More recently, the BJP has started attacking digital dissidents directly from their official channels. In a propaganda video tweeted Wednesday about the party's official points, the BJP said that all "Instagram celebrities" who turn against the government are doing so to be "woken up" and because they are "cool topics." for their New Year parties ".
"What we considered" Internet "ten years ago was the American Internet, and everyone has experienced it."
None of this would have been possible at the beginning of the decade. Despite some early attempts by American technology companies to bring Indians online, the scales didn't yield until the oil magnate and Asia's wealthiest man Mukesh Ambani, who lives in a 27-story house that towers over the Mumbai slums, bankrupted with the telecommunications company Jio $ 35 billion. In 2016, Jio started sharing high-speed data with millions of Indians for free and sparked a telecommunications war that made Indian data prices the cheapest in the world. Experts say that Jio was a turning point. "If it hadn't been for Jio, internet adoption would have been much slower in India," said author Agrawal. "I don't think the world saw anything like this – a company is only bombarding the market with free data like Jio did."
But tracking millions of Indians online wasn't as easy as throwing free data at them. Much of this revolution was made possible by one of the largest technology companies in the world: Google.
India has not been on the radar of most American technology companies for years. "The only time India appeared in product discussions was to customize these products on slow and patchy internet networks in developing countries," said a longtime Google manager who didn't want to be named. "What we considered the" Internet "10 years ago was the American Internet, and everyone has experienced it."
Bloomberg / Getty Images
Sundar Pichai, Google’s Chief Executive Officer, speaks on Wednesday, December 16, 2015, during the Google for India event in New Delhi.
That changed to a decade in a few years. When the industrialized countries like the United States and the United Kingdom were saturated, the technology giants realized that the next phase of growth had to come from emerging countries like India, where almost 900 million people were still offline. "We haven't been here for a quarter, a year, or a few years. We have been here for a long time. For hundreds of years," said Apple CEO Tim Cook during a visit in 2016. Perhaps it was over.
In October 2015, a lanky, bearded Indian named Sundar Pichai became Google's CEO. Just two months later, Pichai flew to New Delhi along with dozens of top Google managers. There, Pichai had a closed-mode meeting where Indian President Pranab Mukherjee spoke to thousands of students in an auditorium at his colonial-era residence and made a series of India-specific announcements – an extension of Google's Hyderabad campus! Expansion of the technical presence of Google! Free WiFi at Indian train stations! Training rural women to use the Internet! – at a devastating event called Google for India, which has since become an annual extravaganza.
“Our goal is to get all Indians online – regardless of income, region, age, gender or language – and how they are. When we go online, we want to make the Internet more relevant and useful for their needs Pichai said at the time.
Google had already announced some India-specific initiatives, such as low-cost Android One phones and allowing Indians to download YouTube videos a year earlier. However, the new CEO's flight to his home country was a turning point for the company.
Google shaped the modern Indian Internet more than Apple. The company went to the base and got their hands dirty instead of offering free Wi-Fi to the Indians. In recent years, Google has made its products available in more than a dozen Indian languages, redesigned Android keyboards to work better with Indian scripts, and even trained its language assistants to understand Hinglian, a mixture of Hindi and English Millions of Indians use slang, which Alexa and Siri regularly trigger.
Google Maps then worked offline and launched Google Pay, a payment app for India that now dominates digital payments in the country. When millions of Indians use an Internet-enabled smartphone for the first time, more than 90% of the devices use Android, Google's mobile operating system.
"We found these features work better than we first built for India elsewhere because it is a much larger market," said Ambarish Kenghe, senior director of Google Pay BuzzFeed News. "The kind of heterogeneity that you find here cannot be found anywhere else."
And in the past few weeks, hundreds of Indians have shared Google Maps links that lead people to precise protest locations. On a donation website for student protesters violated by police brutality, Indians were able to pay using a handful of digital payment options, including Google Pay.
In the last month of the decade, the Modi government faced the strongest dissent it has ever had. Cheap Internet with a Face – and Google's Products – have spurred the revolution. Back in California, Google has come under increasing protest, but here in India, it's still driving the protests.
Courtesy of Uday Singh Rana and Andre Borges
People protesting the Internet shutdown in New Delhi hold up memes.
When the Internet collapsed in the capital, Apar Gupta, director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a New Delhi-based nonprofit that operates in the areas of freedom of speech, online freedom, and privacy, expressed concern about the larger problem The government sent its citizens. “There are concerns that we are not in control, but are small widgets that are turned on and off in a larger computer to serve either the interests of large Silicon Valley companies or authoritarian governments. "He said.
In India, for years, it has been the job of civil servants large and small to close the lines that were divergent from power. According to the Software Freedom Law Center, which tracks internet outages in the country , India is the world leader in digital clampdowns, and it is estimated that India had switched off the Internet 376 times in various parts of the country at the time of this writing – 104 times in 2019 alone.
“It's not like previous ones Governments in India would not have tried to do so, "said Gupta. “However, the current government, in particular, is very keen to control large parts of the Indian population politically, and regards the Internet as a very important tool for achieving this. This is an authoritarian level that smells of a Chinese model that very contradicts India's democratic values. “Indeed, on the same day, India turned off the Internet across much of its capital, People's Daily, China's state mouthpiece. published an article pointing to India's internet bans to justify China's own internet shutdowns in volatile Xinjiang.
"This is an authoritarian level that smells of a Chinese model that is very contrary to India's democratic values."
Indian authorities justified the closure of their country by switching off the Internet to prevent the spread of rumors and misinformation on platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook.
But last week when a court in the state of Assam ordered the state government to shut down to restore internet access, it said that the government had provided no evidence that this actually happened. "Shutting down the mobile internet service [s] practically means bringing life to a standstill," the court said.
In Uttar Pradesh, a country led by India, one of the worst acts of violence occurred during the ongoing protests by a Hindu cleric who houses 43 million Muslims. At least 17 people, including an 8-year-old boy, were killed in the state, although police officers rejected allegations of police brutality. A report released by HuffPost India on Wednesday revealed how the state police detained and tortured children, some of whom were only 13 years old. On WhatsApp, rumors of Uttar Pradesh flew around quickly and violently, but it was difficult to gauge the true extent of the horror: the Internet was banned by the authorities in at least 22 districts of Uttar Pradesh.
To see how state retaliation is essentially directed against the poor, go outdoors in the cities of Uttar Pradesh today. The poor need phone data. Middle class / elite have WiFi. Providers that are completely missing on the streets. Open glass front shops. A lost daily wage is hungry here.
09:16 – 22.12.2019
Twitter: @anniezaidi / Via Twitter: @anniezaidi
"For governments, the desire for control is universal," said Choudhary. Last week, on the day the Delhi Internet shutdown, Choudhary announced that the SFLC office in the city had received an anonymous threatening call asking them to stop monitoring downtime.
Organized, mobilized, pushed back, protested and protected by the control of tools. Millions of Indians struggle to suppress contradiction – and to suppress the fragile feeling of solidarity that the Indians have united since independence of all religions.
“Why are you kidding us? Why do we feel like outsiders if we have also participated in the Indian struggle for freedom? Shakaib Azhar Chaudhry, the educational advisor, said.
And yet India protested online against Bridgefy whenever and wherever possible.
"Let your protest friends download Bridgefy," someone tweeted, referring to an app that uses a phone's Bluetooth connection, which you can use to chat with other users in your area. "The more users, the greater the range," said another. "It will be useful if the government decides to turn off the Internet near you."
"Why are you kidding us? Why do we feel like outsiders if we have also participated in the Indian struggle for freedom? "
A loose group of artists called "Creatives Against CAA" (an acronym for "Citizen Amendment Act", the name of the anti-Muslim law) set up a website on which high-resolution posters under a Creative Commons license for everyone to print and Take part in protests while a detailed "Cheat Sheet for Responding to State Propaganda" was released later in the week, filled with tips, tricks, and FAQs to help government supporters (like friends, uncles and large families).
On Sunday, ordinary Indians punched holes in a fiery speech that Modi gave on Twitter at an election rally in New Delhi, showing that it was full of lies. The tweets went viral and shortly afterwards the term #ModiLies was used on Twitter in India.
Someone on Instagram created the CAA-based WhatsApp style "Good Morning", which is popular with Indians.
On Friday night, a Google crowdsourcing spreadsheet of emergency doctors called up dozens of WhatsApp groups with angry young demonstrators. "Please reinforce this!" Became a popular request.
"Please come to the Daryaganj Police Station immediately," read someone's Instagram story, of which screenshots were immediately shared into WhatsApp groups. "There are people inside and the police deny it. Bring your lawyer, doctor, and influential friends. Come as soon as possible. “
Some Indians have pushed their phone numbers to link to their Twitter accounts so they can use a little-known Twitter feature that lets you tweet via SMS if the internet goes down.
In some protests, the Internet itself got into the real world. "OK, Sanghi," read a poster that changed a viral cultural buzzword to indicate a derogatory word for Modi fans. A meme from 2015 in which Gordon Ramsay holds the head of presenter Julie Chen between two slices of bread and shouts "What are you?" (Her answer: "An idiot sandwich") found his way to a poster on which Chen's head was replaced by Indian home, and Minister and Modi's right man, Amit Shah. A young girl carried a poster of the viral meme "This Is Fine", on which the flaming dog was replaced by a caricature of modes.
"Fascism promotes creativity," said Sukhnidh Kaur, a student from Mumbai. A part of the WhatsApp group that violates the new law.
Last week, a tweet from Modi from 2013, long before he became prime minister, suddenly went viral. "A question," it said. "Where do you see India in 2020?"