Laws and Regulations surrounding internet shutdowns

A country that claims to be a digital economy with the “Digital India” initiative, but repeatedly suspends internet services, contradicts its own assertions.
Internet Shutdown
Internet Shutdown

The State of Manipur has been engulfed in a violent conflict between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities. In the name of containing violence and rumours, the Government of India imposed internet restrictions in Manipur.

The government’s decision to shut down internet in the State on May 3, 2023 has now persisted for over 200 days, and netizens' right to access information is still on its knees. The failure to contain and restrict violence has culminated in the plight of ordinary citizens.

In Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, the Supreme Court ruled that internet must not be suspended for an indefinite period. While acknowledging that the 2017 Suspension Rules require notification or publication of such shutdown orders, the Court said it is a settled principle of law and natural justice that orders affecting the life and liberty of people must be made publicly available, irrespective of whether the parent statute provides that or not. In compliance with the court’s order, Parliament inserted Rule 2A into the Suspension Rules 2017 through an amendment, imposing a fifteen-day time limit for suspensions and making it clear that no order of suspension can be sustained beyond this prescribed limit. However, the government failed to insert any provision regarding reviewing such orders and proactively publishing suspension orders.

According to Times of India, the internet shutdown in the Muslim majority region of Kashmir in August 2019 lasted for around 552 days, making it the world’s longest internet shutdown. Unlike the ordinary suspension, it was a “complete communication blockade", imposed after the controversial abrogation of Article 370 (temporary provisions with respect to the state of Jammu and Kashmir) by the Indian government.

During this year’s monsoon session of Parliament, a Congress MP inquired about the number of internet shutdowns by the law enforcement agencies. In response, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar stated that the Government of India does not maintain any centralized data on the number of internet shutdowns. The reply from the Minister was on expected lines, as the 26th Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communication and Information Technology, released earlier this year, proposed in its 73rd report that maintaining official records of internet shutdowns is deemed unnecessary.

Whether these internet suspensions actually work or not is still a topic of debate, but the economic repercussions they bring are something inalienable. As reported by Business Standard, India has lost more money in the first half of 2023 due to internet suspension than in the entirety of 2022. In the modern world, where people often rely on internet connections for their livelihoods, actions curtailing such rights have devastating effects.

This overlooked method of digital repression, which is more common in the world’s largest democracy than in authoritarian regimes like China and Russia, is cause for concern. One of the first instances in which this right was in jeopardy was the suspension of mobile services in Jammu and Kashmir before Republic Day in January 2010. But after 2012, there has been a rapid increase in the shutdowns by regional governments. Authorities have never failed to exercise control over this right, completely or partially.

The right to internet is one of the basic human rights enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Internet Rights & Principles Dynamic Coalition, based at the UN Internet Governance Forum, has developed internet charters and principles. The UN Human Rights Council adopted the resolution on “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet” on July 13, 2021, which is the fifth in the series of resolutions on this topic. 

According to the Software Freedom Law Centre, India has witnessed 786 internet shutdowns, with Jammu and Kashmir topping the chart with 428 shutdowns. These disruptions have also resulted in a sharp decrease in its economic growth. A report by Brookings in 2016 estimated that India, which derived 5.6% of its GDP from the internet economy, suffered a loss of $968 million in 2015 alone, while the world suffered a loss of $2.4 billion as a result of internet disruptions. The internet is also a major factor in facilitating the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of Agenda 2030. Apart from economic losses, internet shutdowns also jeopardize other sectors, such as health and education, and create human rights and psychological issues. While suspending internet services of foreign countries can be considered an act of aggression, there is no clear answer to the legality and morality of suspending internet services of one’s own country.

These shutdowns are initiated by regional or local authorities via executive orders or decrees. They exploit the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, a colonial-era law meant to regulate India’s telegraph system. This law is being actively used as a medium to curtail the internet. The authorities derive power from Section 5 of the said Act, and the law is often used as an instrument to censor any opinion perceived as unpopular. Exercising the power conferred by Section 7 of the Act, the government laid down the Internet Shutdown Rules in 2017. These rules empowered regional and federal governments to temporarily suspend mobile services during emergencies, with “public emergency” and “public safety” being the only valid grounds.

This digital authoritarianism has sparked debates about the necessity, proportionality and transparency of such actions and their impact on the fundamental rights of the general public. Technology experts and human rights advocates have called for a more judicious and transparent approach to internet shutdowns, along with the need for definite mechanisms, clear criteria and adherence to international human rights standards.

From shutting down telecom networks to breaking encryptions, the administration has conferred itself with new powers to tighten its control over the digital space. Blocking access to information cannot be a justified solution to prevent the spreading of rumours. A country that claims to be a digital economy with the “Digital India” initiative, but repeatedly suspends internet services, contradicts its own assertions. The ability to access and exchange information is what makes people safer in any crisis. Shutdowns are inherently a disproportionate measure and cannot be justified. 

Kaif Hasan is a 5th year B.A.LL.B. course student and Mohd. Rehan Ali is a 3rd  year B.A.LL.B. course student at Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University.

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news