An internet shutdown may be defined as an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information. In other words, this arises when someone, be it the government or a private sector actor, intentionally disrupts the internet, a telecommunications network or an internet service, arguably to control or curb what people say or do. This is sometimes also referred to as a ‘kill switch’.
According to the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a legal services organisation working in this field in India, since 2012 there have been 665 Internet shutdowns in India to date. According to Internet freedom and tech policy organisations, India is the leading country (by number) for Internet disruption incidents and frequency of shutdowns. This year, 59 shutdowns have been enforced, according to SFLC, which determines shutdowns based on government orders and media reports.
- Internet shutdowns by themselves were historically expressed under the Section 144 of CrPC that permits the Magistrates to direct properties i.e. cell phones, towers etc to be used in certain ways. This power has been utilized by magistrates to infact prevent or cease the internet services in certain areas for certain durations which has ordinarily been 48-72 hours, and it has been challenged too.
- Indian Telegraph Act under Section 5(2), which not only has the power of intercepting a class of messages with regard to a person or class of persons but also has the power of suspending telegraph services and this power has been further detailed in the Telecom Internet Suspension Rules formulated in August 2017.
WHY DO GOVERNMENTS IMPOSE THEM?
Almost half of all shutdowns recorded by civil society groups from 2016-2021 were carried out in the context of protests and political crisis, with 225 shutdowns recorded during public demonstrations relating to a vast range of social, political or economic grievances, as stated in the report. It is also a tool to verify rumours, and enables individuals and the Government to disseminate the truth. Cutting off the Internet is both an early and preventive response to block restive groups to organise riots against the Government.
- 1.The Internet actually actualizes a lot of Fundamental Rights beyond Freedom of Speech and Expression because today in a digital era people utilize it to avail rations, card transactions, talk to their relatives, manage healthcare and much more activities which in fact are very necessary for a person to perform its daily functions.
- 2.Restricts human rights monitoring and reporting
- 3.Considerable economic impacts -carry major economic costs for all sectors, disrupting financial transactions, commerce and industry
- 4.The episodes undermine learning outcomes and interfere with education planning and communication among teachers, school administrators and families, they added.
- 5.Shutdowns also directly put people’s safety and well-being at risk. “Hospitals being unable to contact their doctors in cases of emergency, voters being deprived of information about candidates, handicraft makers being cut off from customers and potentially facing imminent economic ruin, peaceful protesters who fall under violent attack being unable to call for help, when an Internet and telecommunications services shutdown occurs,
- 6.Disruptions severely inhibit the work of journalists and the media in general, a key element of fair elections
- 7.Internet shutdowns have a profound effect on the ability of humanitarian actors to provide assistance. Supply chains and the flow of information critical to the delivery of goods and services can be disrupted.
- 8.Create a Trust Deficit: The Internet is a necessity in this day and age, and restrictions without publicly disclosed reasons create a trust deficit.
- 9. Affect vulnerables from lower Socio-economic sections: Internet restrictions are often justified on the ground that they are limited to mobile data services. These contentions also miss the point. According to a 2019 Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) report on Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators, mobile device users (dongle and phone) constituted 97.02% of total Internet users. Only 3% of users have access to broadband Internet. These numbers are not likely to have changed significantly since then, since broadband Internet continues to be expensive. It follows from this that Internet restrictions also tend to adversely affect those from lower socio-economic backgrounds more.
In January 2020, the Supreme Court of India held that access to information via the Internet is a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. The top court also ruled that any restriction on Internet access by the Government must be temporary, limited in scope, lawful, necessary and proportionate. The Court had also said that any order with regard to Internet Shutdowns will come under Judicial Scrutiny.
Thus, more faithful compliance with the Supreme Court guidelines on the part of the executive government is needed to rid ourselves of the tag of the “internet shutdown capital” of the world and fulfil Digital India’s potential.
(covered under Article 21- Right to Privacy also)