No internet in “Digital India”
The use of Internet shutdowns by the government authorities have become the often-repeated strategy to stifle dissent and protest movements, making it a most-used weapon in the government’s artillery to curb the fundamental right of the freedom of expression.
On India’s 72nd Republic Day, when the farmers, who have been protesting against the three farm laws since August 2020, stormed the historic Red Fort, Indian authorities resorted to shutting down the internet in various areas of the National Capital Region. The suspension of internet services was taken in the interest of maintaining “public safety” and “averting public emergency,” said the Ministry of Home Affairs in an official order. The decision to block the internet services continued for the coming days in several parts of Delhi and neighboring state of Haryana following the violent clashes on Republic Day.
The latest incident of Indian authorities blocking internet access, however, is a part of the often-repeated strategy to stifle dissent and protest movements. Suspension of internet access is becoming the most-used weapon in the government’s artillery to curb the fundamental right of the freedom of expression.
The global leader in internet shutdowns
The largest democracy in the world is also the global leader in terms of internet shutdowns. It has been just one month into 2021 and the Indian government has already blocked internet services seven times so far, according to the Internet Shutdown Tracker - a portal that tracks internet suspension incidents by the government across the country. Ever since Narendra Modi-government came to power in 2014, India has recorded an increased number of shutdowns with each passing year, especially at a time when one of the major political planks of this government is “Digital India”.
In 2018, India recorded the highest internet shutdowns with 134 incidents reported. The second highest country on the list was Pakistan with 12 reported incidents. In 2019 when anti-CAA protests were at its peak, the Indian government resorted to shutting-off internet services to curb the protests. Internet was not only blocked in some parts of Delhi but also in Assam, West Bengal, and Aligarh.
In Kashmir, internet shutdowns have been repeatedly used by the government to curb dissent, free speech, and assembly. When the Parliament abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution on August 5, the government imposed the internet shutdown for 214 days, with low-speed 2G services being restored in March 2020.
The economic impact of frequent shutdowns
The suspension of the internet impacts the economy, costing billions of loss in revenue. With more business ventures moving online post-pandemic, internet disruption even for a day brings their services to a halt causing loss of potential customers and stoppage of payment gateway services.
“Government frequently blocks the internet services in a grab of law and order issues, hampering the legitimate democratic process but it results in heavy financial losses because the trade stops,’’ said Advocate Prashant Wani, an expert in cyber & privacy law.
A report by UK-based privacy and security research firm - Top10VPN - said that India has suffered an economic impact of USD 2.8 Billion in 2020. This was also a year of the pandemic when the government cut-off the internet services 83 times.
During the anti-CAA protest, Indian mobile operators lost around Rs 2.4 crore of revenue every hour every time the government ordered an internet block to control the protest.
‘Telecom suspension rules are very broad’
Internet shutdowns were ordered under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which gives District Magistrates broad powers during dangerous situations. After 2017, the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, issued under the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, provided a legal framework to govern internet shutdowns. According to the law, the internet shutdowns orders are issued by the home secretary of the state or the central government. These orders should contain points detailing reasons for ordering the shutdown and then sent to a review committee within 24 hours.
The review committee, which consists of Cabinet Secretary, Secretary to the Government of India in-charge, Legal Affairs, and Secretary to the Government, Department of Telecommunications in-charge, should submit its observations about the shutdown within five days. The shutdown should only continue if the review committee is satisfied with the report. Once the orders are issued, the local unit of telecom service provider switches off power to the tower in the particular area.
The digital rights activists, however, have argued that these suspension rules under the Indian Telegraph Act suffer from a lack of transparency and have normalised the internet shutdowns.
“I think these telecom suspension rules are very broad and need to be restricted in terms of how easily they commit shutdowns. We find a stark increase in terms of deployment of these internet shutdowns as a tool by the government to hinder protests. A country should not have internet shutdown. Even if they are being implemented, we should have proper judicial oversight over these shutdowns,” said Vrinda Bhandari, a Supreme Court advocate.
“The internet shutdowns are not relevant in this age and time,” said Pavan Duggal, Supreme Court lawyer, and a Cyber Law expert. “The power of blocking belongs to a previous century. These shutdowns have become far more frequent and in their invocation by the relevant government which invariably signals of an emerging state power. I think this does not augur well for any nation to go a large number of internet shutdowns,” he added.
While maintaining public order and safety is vital, but in the process of doing that government should also practice some restrain and care about infringement on fundamental rights.