Behind the Great Indian Internet Shutdown

Synopsis: Despite the laws and Supreme Court guidelines, internet shutdowns are common in India. Let us see their impact and the means to handle them properly.

Introduction:

This article highlights the unjudicial use of Internet lockdown by the government. India’s Internet restrictions also accounted for more than 70% of the total loss to the global economy in 2020. India is also infamous as the Internet shutdown capital of the world.

What is the court judgement?

Anuradha Bhasin vs union of India: SC ruled that access to information via the Internet is a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution. It held that restriction on Internet access by the Government must be temporary, limited in scope, lawful, necessary and proportionate. The Court stated that the Government’s orders restricting Internet access are subject to review by courts.

The guiding principle behind this was that the ban should be used as an emergency measure and a short-term measure.

What are the recent Restrictions imposed by the government?

Internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir:  According to an Internet shutdown tracker maintained by the Software Freedom Law Centre, the government of J&K suspended Internet services on five other separate occasions. The suspension orders for the same were not uploaded on the government’s websites

Internet shutdowns in Haryana: Internet was shut down due to the ongoing farmer protests.

In this case, the governments have published the orders restricting access to the internet. Haryana’s orders are on social media but have not been uploaded on government websites.

How does Government justify the Internet shutdown?

Internet restrictions are often justified on the ground that they are limited to mobile data services. According to a 2019 Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) report on Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators, mobile device users constitute 97.02% of total Internet users and only 3% of users have access to broadband Internet. Thus, internet restrictions adversely affect those from lower socio-economic backgrounds more, as they primarily use mobile as source for accessing the internet.

How did it erode the public trust?

Non-publication of orders: Aggrieved person cannot approach a court of law to question an order’s legality in the absence of the order. At best, courts may direct the Government to produce the order. This enables the Government to get away with illegal restrictions.

Statutory recognition: Union Government has also not done enough to give statutory recognition to the directions provided by the Anuradha Bhasin case. In 2020, it amended the Telecom Suspension Rules, 2017 to limit Internet suspension orders to a maximum of 15 days. However, the amendment did not include an obligation on the Government to publish orders nor did it include the Supreme Court’s direction to undertake periodic review of these orders.

What is the impact of Internet Lockdown?

Loss of economy: Indian economy suffered losses to the tune of $2.8 billion due to 129 separate instances of Internet suspension, which affected 10.3 million individuals.

The social-economic-psychological harm from the ban far outweighs its benefits.

Moreover, the free flow of information is in fact vital to check and curb any rumours.

What should be the way forward?

Thus, the Supreme Court, in Anuradha Bhasin case, permitted the Government to restrict Internet access only in limited circumstances. So, faithful compliance with the Supreme Court is needed to get rid ourselves of the tag of the “internet shutdown capital” of the world and fulfil Digital India’s potential.

Source: This post is based on the article ”Behind the Great Indian Internet Shutdown” published in The Hindu on 15th September 2021.

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