Date : 09/10/2023
Relevance: GS Paper 2 - Governance- Digital Governance
Keywords: Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency and Public Safety) Rules, 2017, Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, Anuradh Bhasin case 2020
The Manipur government announced the restoration of full internet access, citing improved law and order conditions. This marked the end of India's second-longest internet blackout, lasting over 143 days since May 3. Citizens, including students planning to return to Manipur and aid workers in need of essential supplies, greeted this news with relief.
Reason for Internet Shutdown in India
- Internet shutdowns in India are often imposed by the government as an administrative or law-and-order measure.
- 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.
- It is done to curb the spread of misinformation and rumors that can lead to deteriorating law and order situations.
- Shutting down the internet helps maintain peace among communities in times of crisis.
Provisions related to internet shutdowns include
- Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency and Public Safety) Rules, 2017: These rules empower the union or state home secretary to order the suspension of telegraph services, including the internet, in cases of public emergency or safety. Such orders must be reviewed by a committee within five days and cannot last for more than 15 days. In urgent situations, an officer of the joint secretary level or higher can issue the order.
- Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure: This section allows district magistrates, sub-divisional magistrates, or other executive magistrates authorized by the state government to issue orders to prevent or stop disturbances of public tranquility, including suspending internet services in a specific area for a specified period.
Impacts of Internet shutdowns:
- Violation of Fundamental Rights: Internet shutdowns infringe upon fundamental rights, including the freedom of speech and expression (Article 19(1)(a)), and the freedom to practice any profession over the Internet (Article 19(1)(g)). The Supreme Court's ruling in the Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India case (2020) affirmed these constitutional protections. Additionally, they can impede the right to information (Article 19) and the right to the Internet (Article 21), as recognized by various court cases.
- Economic Consequences: Internet shutdowns can have severe economic repercussions. Businesses heavily reliant on the Internet for operations, sales, and communication may experience substantial financial losses. Startups and small businesses are particularly vulnerable to these disruptions. For instance, India reportedly lost Rs 2,091 crore ($255.2 million) in the first half of 2023 due to internet shutdowns, according to Top10VPN.
- Disruption of Education: Many educational institutions rely on online platforms for teaching and learning. Internet shutdowns disrupt access to educational resources, making it challenging for students to continue their studies.
- Trust and Censorship Concerns: Internet shutdowns can erode trust in government and authorities, raising concerns about censorship and a lack of transparency.
- Impediment to Disaster Response: Internet shutdowns hinder communication and coordination, particularly during emergencies and crises. A UN-backed report has emphasized that shutting down the internet adversely affects people's safety and well-being, hindering the flow of information and humanitarian assistance.
- Disruption in Health Care: Research has demonstrated significant impacts of shutdowns on health systems, including difficulties in mobilizing urgent medical care, disruptions in the delivery of essential medicines, limitations in the exchange of health information among medical personnel, and disruptions in essential mental health assistance.
- International Repercussions: Internet shutdowns can attract international attention and condemnation, potentially harming a country's reputation and diplomatic relationships with other nations. India, for example, has garnered significant global scrutiny due to its high number of internet shutdowns.
- Impact on Journalism and Reporting: Journalists heavily rely on the internet to report on events and disseminate news to the public. Shutdowns can impede their ability to gather and share information, compromising the public's right to access information. The right to freedom of the press, as declared by the Supreme Court in Indian Express vs Union of India (1986) and Bennett Coleman vs Union of India (1972) cases, is affected by these disruptions.
Arguments in Favor of Internet Shutdown
- Preventing Hate Speech and Fake News: Proponents argue that Internet shutdowns can help curb the spread of hate speech and fake news, which may incite violence and social unrest. For example, the government imposed an internet shutdown in Delhi NCR following the farmers' protest on Republic Day to combat misinformation and maintain law and order.
- Maintaining Public Order: Supporters contend that internet shutdowns are necessary to prevent the organization and mobilization of protests that could disrupt public order and security. For instance, shutdowns were implemented in Kashmir and other regions following the abrogation of Article 370 to prevent anti-national activities and separatist movements.
- National Security and Sovereignty: Advocates assert that internet shutdowns protect national security and sovereignty from external threats and cyberattacks. For example, the government suspended internet services in some border areas during the standoff with China to prevent espionage or sabotage.
- Content Control: Supporters argue that internet shutdowns can help control the distribution and consumption of content that could be harmful or offensive to certain groups or individuals. To prevent the circulation of objectionable images or videos, the government has blocked internet access in some regions
- Undermining Democracy and Accountability: Critics contend that internet shutdowns undermine democracy and accountability by preventing citizens from accessing information, expressing opinions, participating in public debates, and holding authorities responsible for their actions.
- Enabling Authoritarianism: Detractors argue that shutdowns can enable authoritarian governments to silence critics and create distorted information echo chambers.
- Ineffectiveness and Counterproductivity: Many critics maintain that internet shutdowns are ineffective and counterproductive, as they do not address the root causes of the problems they aim to solve. Instead, they can fuel anger and resentment among the affected populations.
- Failure to Prevent Misinformation: It is argued that internet shutdowns do not effectively prevent misinformation or hate speech but create information vacuums that can be exploited by malicious actors.
- Arbitrary and Prone to Abuse: Critics highlight that internet shutdowns are often arbitrary and prone to abuse, as they are imposed without due process, transparency, or judicial oversight. Local authorities, without legal power, frequently order shutdowns.
- Lack of Clear Criteria: Internet shutdowns lack clear and objective criteria, duration, and scope, making them susceptible to political interference and human rights violations.
Steps to Deal with Internet Shutdowns:
Efforts to address the issue of internet shutdowns include:
- Strengthening the Existing Framework: Enhancing the legal and regulatory framework governing internet shutdowns to ensure they are only employed as a last resort and in accordance with international human rights standards. This includes amending outdated and vague laws such as the Indian Telegraph Act.
- Ensuring Accountability of the Authorities: Increasing transparency and accountability of the authorities responsible for ordering and implementing internet shutdowns, while providing effective remedies for those affected.
- Exploring Alternate Options: Considering less intrusive measures to deal with law-and-order disturbances, communal violence, terrorist attacks, examinations, and political instability. These options might include blocking specific websites or content, issuing warnings or advisories, engaging with civil society and media, or deploying more security forces.
- Adhering to Supreme Court's Guidelines: Following the directions of the Supreme Court as outlined in the Anuradha Bhasin case (2020), which include adhering to temporary duration, proportionality, and judicial review principles when implementing internet shutdowns.
Before resorting to the drastic measure of blocking the Internet, a rigorous proportionality and necessity test must be conducted. It is imperative to weigh whether the same objectives can be achieved through less intrusive and more effective solutions, considering the potential short-term and long-term social and economic costs. In the spirit of democratic accountability, governments should be transparent, providing a timely rationale for disrupting Internet services. To ensure transparency and public trust, governments should meticulously document the reasons, duration, alternatives considered, responsible decision-making authorities, and the legal framework guiding such shutdowns, releasing these records for public scrutiny. These steps are essential for upholding democratic principles while addressing challenges that may necessitate temporary Internet disruptions.
Source- The Indian Express