Rise of internet shutdowns in India

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     Rise of internet shutdowns in India 

    Syllabus: GS2/ Government Policies & Interventions

    In Context

    • Over the past few years, the Indian government has increasingly been trying to control law and order by shutting down access to the Internet.

    What is the Internet Shutdown? 

    • Internet Shutdowns may be defined as any disruption in access to the internet services most of which deal with mobile internet. 
    • Objectives : While a lot of shutdowns are necessary to prevent communal tensions, civil war, or riots and situations of unrest, they need to be proportionate.
    • Types : 
      • Preventive shutdowns:
        • Preventive shutdowns are imposed before an event takes place. 
        • For example, following the circulation of a video of a tailor getting beheaded in Udaipur, there was a shutdown in anticipation of a communal riot. 
      • Reactive shutdowns:
        • A reactive shutdown is imposed after an event takes place and is generally the easiest way to control an escalating law and order situation.

    Data on Internet shutdowns 

    • Between 2016 and 2022, 60% of Internet shutdowns across the world took place in India.
      • There were almost 84 shutdowns in 2022 in India. 
    • Since 2012, the number of shutdowns in India recorded by The Internet Shutdowns Tracker maintained by the Software Freedom Law Center stands at 738. 
    • Reasons of Internet shutdowns:
      • There are many reasons why Internet shutdowns are imposed. 
        • For around 40-50% of them, the official reason is communal tensions
        • Some of them are imposed during protests, many to prevent cheating during exams, and many due to religious processions.

    Legal Provisions

    • Section 144 of CrPC:
      • Till the year 2017, shutdowns were imposed largely under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). 
      • Section 144 of CrPC gave the police and the District Magistrate the powers in order to prevent unlawful gathering of people and also to direct any person to abstain from a certain activity. 
    • Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017:
      • In 2017 the law was amended and the Government promulgated the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rule 2017.
      • The substantive law regarding suspension of Internet services is a broad interpretation of Section 5(2) of Telegraph Act 1855, although the traditional law regarding the same was not a lump of the former Act or Rules.
        • The authority who are able to order such directions is:
          • The Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs. (Central Government)

    Issues & criticisms of Internet shutdowns 

    • Against the Fundamental rights: Internet and communications shutdowns, when in place, violate the fundamental freedom of expression. 
      • Article 19 of the Constitution mentions freedom of speech and freedom to practise any profession. 
      • Article 21 protects the right to life and liberty, which also encompasses the right to education and the right to exercise one’s freedom to access the Internet.
    • Frivolous reasons of shutdowns:
      • The freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute right, but shutdowns cannot happen for frivolous reasons. 
        • Rajasthan cut off the Internet before the REET (Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teachers) exam and West Bengal did the same before the Madhyamik Pariksha.
          • Shutdowns for preventing cheating in exams should not be a ground. 
    • Imposing authority:
      • Nobody below the level of a Joint Secretary can impose a shutdown. 
      • But often, district magistrates end up imposing blanket shutdowns. 

    Repercussions of shutdowns: 

    • Arbitrary Internet shutdowns are not only an attack on the civil liberties and the constitutional rights of the citizens, by the State, but they have grave economic consequences too, with businesses and working professionals losing out on sales and job days. 
      • People can’t work, access telemedicine, study, or even eat, since so many of our delivery services need the Internet and an OTP (one-time password). 
    • Moreover, it is doubtful whether these shutdowns help in achieving the stated goals of maintaining law and order.

    Supreme Court’s Observations 

    • Anuradha Bhasin and Faheema Shirin case:
      • The Supreme Court has held in various decisions, including in Anuradha Bhasin and Faheema Shirin, that access to the Internet has to be preserved. 
      • Apex Court’s directions:
        • Shutdowns should be exercised only in situations which require exceptional control and surveillance. 
        • The Court has said a shutdown needs to be temporary, limited in scope, lawful and proportionate.
        • According to the Anuradha Bhasin judgement, if you’re cutting off somebody’s Internet, you have to at least inform them. 
          • Often there is no public information about a shutdown.

    Conclusion & way ahead

    • Before blocking the Internet, it is essential to conduct a proportionality and necessity test. 
    • It is crucial to consider whether the same objective can be achieved by a less intrusive and more effective solution. 
    • It is also essential to conduct a cost-benefit analysis and choose a measure that minimises the short-term and long-term social and economic costs incurred.
    • Democratic governments must be accountable to the public and provide a rationale for disrupting Internet services in a timely manner. 
    • In the interest of transparency, all governments should document the reasons, time, alternatives considered, decision-making authorities and the rules under which the shutdowns were imposed and release the documents for public scrutiny. 

    Daily Mains Practice Question 

    [Q]  How far do you agree with the view that Internet shutdowns have high social and economic costs and are often ineffective?Cite some recent examples to validate your answer.