I ask the question in the title of this post because Kashmir is now six months into an internet blackout (for all practical purposes) enforced by the Indian government. The internet was taken down on August 5th, 2019 and remained down entirely for almost six months.
Then on January 26th of 2020, very limited service was restored. According to an article by the Washington Post:
Only 301 websites selected by the government are accessible. Social media is entirely off-limits, and Internet service on mobile phones is running at the lowest possible speed. Broadband connections to homes remain cut.
So, essentially, over 7 million people in Kashmir remain without internet as of the writing of this post. And this shutdown has been orchestrated by the most populous democracy on the face of the planet. Think about that last bit for a minute.
More people than the population of the state of Colorado have been cut off from the rest of the world by a democratic government for over six months.
How would you be impacted by losing internet access?
At first, I didn't realize just how devastating it would be to lose internet connection. I mean, two weeks ago my house lost internet connection for a span of five hours during a weekend day. It was inconvenient. My kids whined about not being able to connect to Khan Academy or watch streaming entertainment. I pulled out a puzzle, and we read actual paper books. No biggie.
When I listened to a podcast on the Kashmir outage, I realized the full extent of the crushing blow to the economy and the spirit of the people. No internet for months. Now imagine the impact the outage would have on your business if you did 90% of your sales online. You can't even contact your customers to let them know why your site is down or unresponsive.
In a matter of months, Kashmir's progressive economy has been set back fifty years or more.
What does this have to do with Pirate Publishing?
Why am I even writing a post about this? Well, as writers and storytellers the open information distribution network should be of vital importance to us. The only thing potentially more insidious than the censorship of information is the complete restriction of information sharing among a group of people for the purpose of oppression.
The internet has provided the ability to level the playing field and to connect us all. The internet's immense potential goes hand in hand with the ability to elevate certain people groups over others in an unprecedented manner if we are not vigilant about its access.
Sure, we aren't shocked when an oppressive regime blocks out the outside world, or when a totalitarian government uses internet access in an effort to isolate and eliminate an undesirable minority group. We almost don't even take notice. After all, there were 122 major instances (national or regional) of government orchestrated internet blackouts in 2019. India alone is estimated to have created 90 or more smaller, more limited blackouts. It's common place these days.
It is estimated that there were 18,225 hours worth of internet shutdowns globally in 2019.
Now democracies are using the same tactics. I'm worried it's only a matter of time before the United States begins to follow suit...unless of course it already has, and I just don't know about it. How long could your neighborhood survive without internet? How many weeks could you last before your livelihood lay in ruins?
Net neutrality matters to us all. If the United States can't fight to preserve equal and free internet access for all of its people, then what comes next? How long until we begin using it as a weapon by removing access in a targeted manner?
For the safety of the masses? For the greater good?
Is it conceivable that the United States government would ever orchestrate such a shutdown against its own people? Before you dismiss this question with an emphatic no, take a minute to think about India's surface reasoning. Publicly, the Indian government claims it had to shut down the internet for the safety of the people of Kashmir--to prevent the spread of fake news and false reports that would lead to widespread panic as the Indian military moved in to enforce the revoking of Kashmir's autonomy and to detain thousands of people.
It seems pretty obvious to me that what the Indian government meant was that it didn't want citizens of Kashmir to be able to organize against the Indian incursion or have any clear idea what the hell was happening. And the reason the internet has remained down for six months? The most logical answer to that is two fold. First off, India sure as hell doesn't want the people of Kashmir communicating with the outside world in a manner that would make the Kashmiris appear sympathetic and that could draw attention to what India is doing.
Secondly, India appears to be attempting to break the spirits of the 7 million citizens of Kashmir by isolating them.
Now let's ask the question again. Is it conceivable that the United States government or any western, democratic government would ever orchestrate such a shutdown against its own people? Would the U.S. government shut down the internet for the state of Colorado? Probably not. But would the U.S. government shut down internet access for a neighborhood?
What if Homeland Security deemed a neighborhood to be hosting a sleeper cell that posed an immediate threat to the nation? What if the neighborhood was predominantly Muslim? What if some people took to the streets to riot? Would the government pressure cell phone carries and internet providers to black out the area? In the name of safety? In the name of preventing the spread of false reports and panic?
Is it feasible then that the government would decide to leave the internet down for days or even weeks afterwards? If the citizenry of the most influential democracies on the planet continue to show such weak opposition to India's behavior in this matter, it may only be a matter of time before our own governments deem the act of shutting down the internet for an entire region to be an acceptable tactic with minor to manageable blowback.
As storytellers, we can use our imaginations to educate.
As an outraged storyteller, I'm planning how I can include this in one of my upcoming books. I invite you to do the same. Stay connected to our fellow humans. Keep the embers of your empathy stoked. Use that fire to burn the hearts of minds of your readers with powerful narrative. It's the way we storytellers keep the power hungry in check.