On Sunday, the Rajasthan government suspended internet services on account of exams, claiming “organised cheating” that happens over the internet. This was the third shutdown ordered by the state in the last three weeks. Even as the central government recently sought responses from the industry on banning specific sites such as Facebook and WhatsApp to limit the flow of misinformation and maintain order, data shows that states have been trigger happy when it comes to ordering shutdowns.
This year alone, India has seen 95 internet shutdowns as against 79 such cases in the whole year of 2017, according to data compiled by SFLC, a legal services organisation. The problem of shutdowns exist across many states but Jammu and Kashmir and Rajasthan lead the pack.
For instance, J&K has already witnessed 36 internet shutdowns, while Rajasthan has had 26. Among other states, Uttar Pradesh has had seven instances this year from just two in 2017. Five instances of internet shutdowns have been reported from Maharashtra this year. Maharashtra suspended internet services in Navi Mumbai to check the spread of misinformation and rumours during the Maratha quota agitation that took place in July. Just two days earlier, the state had suspended internet in Aurangabad as a cautionary measure.
Aggregated data shows that there have been 233 reported instances of suspension of internet services in India in the last seven years. However, 73 per cent of these shutdowns have happened only in the last year and a half. The increasing instances of shutdowns to prevent rumour mongering to examination cheating aren’t going unnoticed.
On July 25, the Rajasthan High Court directed the state government to respond within three weeks on the rising instances of shutdowns in a public interest litigation filed in court over internet unavailability. There are occasions when, as a result of the ban, fixed line services don’t work either. Mobile internet service suspension leads to delays and troubles for businesses and industry as well.
“Businesses, educational institutions, hospitals, and even governments themselves have come to rely extensively on the internet over time, and without it, the day-to-day functioning of such entities are significantly crippled,” SFLC noted in its report earlier this year.
The report further stated that internet shutdowns go against the human rights of citizens and should call for further questioning on their purpose in the interest of transparency.
There are largely three different laws under which such orders are given by the governments. First is Section 144, Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which allows the authorities to lay down guidelines to impose “temporary measures to maintain public tranquility.”
At the same time, Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act 1855 has also been invoked often to order internet service disruptions. Under this section, the government can order stoppage of spread of messages through a communication medium to restore public order and if it’s in public interest. Additionally, Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, which were notified in 2017, also help the governments to ban internet access. Even as these rules and laws come with oversight clauses to inform the public about the nature and the requirement of an internet shutdown, users are often caught unaware, the report noted.
“Considering that TSPs offering Internet services in the country do not consistently issue notifications before shutdowns are imposed, users in affected areas are often caught unawares and have little to no time to make arrangements to mitigate the impact of shutdowns,” it states. Faisal Farooqui, CEO of mouthshut.com, told Business Standard that frequent internet shutdowns are a hindrance in smooth functioning of the industry.
“Frequent Internet shutdown results in serious disruption and tremendous loss to individuals and businesses. Internet shutdown compromises safety and security of families, prevents our progressive nation from realising the benefits of digital economy and brings an element of chaos. Central government should enable legislation prohibiting Internet shutdown,” he said.