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Legal Nuances of Internet Shutdown in India

ABSTRACT

This blog examines the legal nuances and intricacies of the internet shutdowns imposed in different states of India. It delves into the present legislation in India pertaining to Internet shutdowns, further examining the rationale of the government and the proponents of internet shutdowns for its justification including it being a tool to prevent violence in these regions where militant and terrorist activities are prevalent. Further, the blog examines the severe repercussions that the shutdowns have on the Fundamental Human rights of the citizens. Thus, it tries to present a lucid image of the arguments both for and against the imposition of Internet shutdowns while simultaneously deliberating the need to take a balanced approach between law and proportionality or the measures implemented to ensure that the rights of the citizens are not violated.


KEYWORDS: Rights, Violation, Communication, Militants, Shutdowns


INTRODUCTION

In the 21st century, the reliance on the Internet has been unmatched across diverse sectors, including business, education, entertainment, media, and communication, owing to its revolutionary characteristics. As a result, the internet has evolved into an essential requirement for society. Various Governments across the globe have been imposing internet shutdowns which, according to them, act as tools to suppress the violence in such regions.

Internet shutdowns, also known as Internet blackouts or disruptions, refer to deliberate actions taken by governments or authorities to restrict or completely cut off access to the Internet within a specific region, country, or even specific services or platforms. These shutdowns can be implemented for various reasons, such as political, social, or security concerns. Internet shutdowns can involve blocking access to websites, social media platforms, and messaging apps, or throttling internet speeds to render online activities practically impossible. In this blog, we will analyze the rationale behind the imposition of the same, the statutes governing the same, the human rights violation due to the suspension of the internet, and the way forward.


RATIONAL BEHIND INTERNET SHUTDOWNS

There have been various instances where the government has imposed the shutdown on the assumption that the same would lead to the prevention of violence and suppression of fake news and information. Further, the proponents of the shutdowns describe it as a measure to maintain public safety and order while simultaneously preserving cultural, regional, and national security. As per a report of TOI, “The authorities disrupted internet access at least 49 times in Jammu and Kashmir due to political instability and violence, including a string of 16 back-to-back orders for three-day long curfew style shutdowns in January and February 2022”. [1]Further, In a report titled Weapons of Control, shields of Impunity: Internet Shutdowns in 2022 it was found that in the year 2022, India implemented a total of 84 shutdowns, the highest number of shutdowns among other countries with the shutdown primarily being imposed in states such as Manipur, Rajasthan, Meghalaya, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana.[2]


STATUTES PERTAINING TO INTERNET SHUTDOWNS IN INDIA

  • Section 5(2) and Section 7 of the Indian Telegraph Act, of 1885 provide for the procedure of suspension of Internet Services empowering the central government to regulate various types of telecom services including Internet services, and grant licenses for them.

  • Till, 2017, the suspension of internet services or internet shutdown was enforced under Section 144 of CrPC (The Criminal Procedure Code) which gave powers to the police and the district magistrate to suspend any unlawful gathering as well as directing any person to abstain from performing certain actions.

  • Currently, the suspension of telecom and internet services is governed by the 2017 rules[3], notified under the Indian Telegraph Act, of 1855.

  • Article 19 of the Constitution of India provides for the freedom of speech and expression, which includes practicing any trade or profession of our choice, subject to certain restrictions.

  • The restrictions are specified in Articles 19(2) and 19(6) of the Indian Constitution, which is “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”[4] and reasonable restrictions that the state can impose upon the right to carry out business and another occupation.[5]

The Hon’ble apex court emphasized the need of taking a balanced approach in cases where the validity of an internet shutdown is questioned. It further directed the governments, to take into consideration the test of proportionality in the cases where such dispute exists. [6] The Court, while elaborating upon the importance of the 4G Internet, held that the national security of a State cannot be compromised in any situation. It further directed the government to form a committee to take heed and analyze the situation scrupulously. [7]

Thus, the Court has in various instances, taken a balanced approach ensuring that the internet shutdown should be proportionate to the challenges faced and should not act as a tool to suppress the opposition.


THE SEVERE EFFECTS OF INTERNET SHUTDOWNS ON HUMAN RIGHTS

In a report titled, Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns, 2022, it was found that “51% of deliberate internet shutdowns were associated with additional human rights abuse”. [8]Further, the study conducted in 2019 on Internet blackouts in India found that the shutdowns were “much more strongly associated with increases in violent collective action than with non-violent mobilization”. The study gave the rationale for the finding that in such a situation where the internet connectivity is blocked, the protestors had no resort but to adhere to violent tactics when they were unable to coordinate and communicate for a peaceful protest. Further, in June 2022 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in a report underlying the harsh impacts of internet shutdowns on human rights pointed out the fact that they “very rarely meet the fundamental requirements of necessity and proportionality”.[9]

In a 2012 resolution, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) affirmed that the “same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular, freedom of expression.”[10]

The Guwahati High Court directed the government to immediately lift the ban on the suspension of internet services in the region as the same was quite peaceful at the time and there was no danger to the public interest as well as national security.[11]

Furthermore, there have been times when the government has imposed the shutdowns without a valid justification, for instance in States such as Meghalaya and Rajasthan, the rationale behind the shutdown was given to prevent cheating in the teachers’ exam. [12]


CONCLUSION AND WAY FORWARD

It cannot be denied that internet shutdowns are a double-edged sword. While on one hand they may be considered as a tool to prevent violence, to obstruct the communication between the militants and separatists, the misuse of the same can result in severe repercussions, including suppression of the right to freedom and expression of the citizenry. In the contemporary world where the economies of nations are hugely dependent on E-commerce, the suspension of the internet might result in the violation of the right to carry out business of the citizenry. Further, it can have a grave impact on basic human rights and can even exacerbate violence if the factors of proportionality and reasonableness have not been taken into consideration.

The government and the authorities must take into consideration the proportionality of the measures to be implemented and maintain the balance between the interests of the state and the human rights of people residing in those regions.


REFERENCES [1] Sindhu Hariharan, India’s top offender in Interenet Shutdown for fifth year in a row: Report, The T.O.I., March 1, 2023 at para 3. [2] Zach Rosson, Felicia Anthonio, and Carolyn Tackett, Weapons of control, shields of impunity: Internet shutdowns in 2022, Accessnow.org, (Feb, 2023), https://www.accessnow.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/2022-KIO-Report-final.pdf. [3] Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency & Public Safety) Rules, 2017. [4] Art. 19(2) of the Constitution of India, 1950. [5] Art. 19(6) of the Constitution of India, 1950. [6] Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, A.I.R. 2020 S.C. 1308(India). [7] Foundation for Media professionals v. UT of J&K, (2020) 3 SCC 746. [8] Samuel Woodhams and Simon Ligliano, Government Internet Shutdowns Cost Almost $24 Billion in 2022, Top10VPN.com, (Jan3, 2023), https://www.top10vpn.com/research/cost-of-internet-shutdowns/2022/. [9] Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Internet shutdowns: UN report details ‘dramatic’ impact on people’s lives and human rights, ohchr.org , (June 23, 2022) , https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/06/internet-shutdowns-un-report-details-dramatic-impact-peoples-lives-and-human. [10] UN Human Rights Council (20th session), The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet : resolution / adopted by the Human Rights Council, digitallibrary,un.org, (July 4, 2012), https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/731540 . [11] Bansashree Gogoi v. Union of India, 2019 SCC OnLine Gau 5584. [12] Rachel Panett, Indian state shuts down Internet for millions to prevent cheating in teachers’ exam, The Was. Post, (September 29,2021, 3:48 a.m. EDT).

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