Why and how are governments suspending the internet in India?

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Following the brutal camera murder of tailor Kanhaiyalal Teli in Udaipur by two men, the government of Rajasthan has banned internet services. Shut down internet as an administrative or public order measure has been a common measure taken all over India – for various reasons and by almost all political parties and governments.

There are no official data on the number of stoppages but according to estimates by research organizations, it seems that their frequency has increased in recent years. A growing number of people have been affected as a result as internet usage has increased in India and the coronavirus pandemic has made it even more of a commonly used essential service.

How do internet shutdowns affect people and why do governments impose them?

What does the data on internet suspensions say?

According to the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a legal service organization working in this field in India, since 2012, there have been 665 internet shutdowns in India nowadays. Here, “shutdowns” means a complete ban on mobile (3G, 4G/LTE) or fixed (dial-up, wired/wireless broadband) internet, both or either of which can be shut down.

According to internet freedom and technology policy organisations, India is the top country (by number) for internet disruption incidents and frequency of shutdowns. This year, 59 closures have been imposed, according to SFLC, which determines closures based on government orders and media reports.

This raises another question: Internet shutdowns aren’t always officially announced, so it can be difficult to know if your phone is just not working properly or if a shutdown is in place. Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international lawyer at Access Now, which works to secure an “open internet”, told The Indian Express that some telecom companies in states like Rajasthan are alerting people via SMS, but this it’s not mandatory.

Jammu and Kashmir has seen over 411 lockdowns since 2012, with the longest lasting over 552 days after the former state’s special status was revoked.

Among the states, Rajasthan has seen the most lockdowns – with 88 such cases in almost 10 years. The reasons range from protests by the Gujjar community for the reservation to preventing cheating during the Rajasthan Teacher Eligibility Examination (REET) held to select primary school teachers last year, which was taken by about 16 lakh seekers.

How do governments justify shutting down the internet?

Governments claim that misinformation and rumors can lead to a breakdown of law and order in an area, so curbing the flow of information helps maintain peace between communities in times of crisis.

But many experts have countered that in the absence of sources of information such as the media, rumors may actually end up spreading even more. Additionally, important services such as those related to payments, banking, and access to education are all cut off in an instant, leading to multi-level disruption and economic loss.

What is the procedure for shutting down the Internet?

In February 2022, Lok Sabha MP Varun Gandhi asked parliament whether the government keeps records of closures or intends to, and if not, what protocol is followed.

Minister of State for Communications Devusinh Chauhan responded that the States Review Committee, chaired by the Chief Secretary (the highest official of a state) is mandated by the rules for temporary suspension of telecommunications services (public emergency or public safety), 2017, to decide that the stops were made according to the rules.

Rules drawn up by the central government state that temporary suspensions can be “due to public emergency or public safety” and give senior Home Office officials at central and state levels the power to order closures.

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Before the rules came into effect in 2017, internet shutdowns were ordered under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which gives district magistrates sweeping powers in dangerous situations.

So what is the closure debate?

Anuradha Bhasin, a Kashmiri journalist, has petitioned the Supreme Court over the Internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir, which she says has brought a halt to newspaper printing work and life in general .

In its order issued in January 2020, the court ruled that “freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practice any profession or to carry on any trade, business or occupation on the medium of the Internet enjoys a constitutional protection under Article 19(1)(a) and Article 19(1)(g)”.

The court ordered the J&K administration to “immediately review all internet service suspension orders” because “an indefinite suspension order for internet services is unconscionable.”

He said that “the restriction of these fundamental rights must be in accordance with the mandate provided for in Article 19 (2) and (6) of the Constitution, including the test of proportionality”.

The court ordered the government to compulsorily publish all orders allowing internet shutdowns, paving the way for the first time for the suspension orders to be challenged in court. In December 2019, the High Court in Gauhati ordered the government of Assam to restore the internet to the state after reviewing the suspension orders.

In December 2021, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology, led by Congress Leader Shashi Tharoor, said: “…Governments have resorted to telecommunications/internet shutdowns for reasons not so pressing and have regularly used it as a tool for routine policing and even for administrative purposes, such as preventing exam cheating to defuse local crime, which are not large-scale public safety issues and certainly do not constitute a “public emergency”.

The Home Office told the committee: ‘The phrase public emergency has not been defined in law, but contours broadly delineating its scope and characteristics are discernible from the section which is to be read in general. The competent authority must form an opinion on the occurrence of a state of public emergency with a view to taking further action under this article. »

Some of the committee’s suggestions included defining terms such as “public emergency” to avoid their use without cause. He added that some apps or websites could be banned, such as WhatsApp, where the possibility of rumors being widely circulated is high, while other internet services could remain available to users.

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