Telecom Suspension Rules. 2017 do not not mandate the Central Government to maintain any centralised data of internet suspensions: MoS Communications
According to a report, internet shutdowns in India lasted a total of 1,157 hours in 2021
Internet blackouts led to a cumulative loss of $583 Mn and impacted over 59 Mn people across the country in 2021
The Union Government has said that it does not maintain records pertaining to internet shutdowns ordered by state governments.
This was stated in a written reply by Minister of State (MoS) for Communications, Devusinh Chauhan, in response to a query filed by BJP Member of Parliament, Varun Gandhi.
Varun Gandhi also questioned the Centre about whether non-maintenance of such data impeded efforts to ascertain whether shutdowns were imposed in accordance with due rules and SC guidelines.
In reply, Chauhan stated that, ”The review committee chaired by Chief Secretary of the respective state governments was mandated through Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 to ascertain that the shutdowns have been made in accordance with the said rules.”
The SC guidelines that Gandhi was referring to were the directions issued by the Supreme Court in the Anuradha Bhasin Vs. Union of India case. The case sought to determine the constitutional validity of internet shutdowns imposed in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in August of 2019.
In the judgement, the SC had ordered the Centre to ensure proactive publication of internet shutdown orders and periodic review by the Review Committee every seven working days
In addition to this, the SC had ruled that undefined restriction of internet services would be illegal and that right to the internet was protected under the constitution. The Apex Court had also noted several gaps in the then Telecom Suspension Rules, 2017.
Right after that in November of 2021, the Union Government amended the Rules and added Rule 2A which capped internet shutdown for a maximum period of 15 days.
It is pertinent to note that until 2017, India did not have a codified law to order internet shutdowns. All such requests were routed through Section 144 of the CrPC which vested the power to impose shutdowns with local district magistrates.
All that changed in 2017 when the new Telecom Suspension Rules were introduced under which internet shutdowns can now only be ordered by the home secretary of the union or state governments. The rules necessitated shutdowns only where it was ‘necessary’ or in the ‘interest of public safety.’
Since then, incessant internet shutdowns have earned India the moniker of ‘Internet shutdown capital of the world.’
Back to the story, in response to another question raised by Gandhi about non-maintenance of suspension data, MoS said that the 2017 rules do not not mandate the Central Government to maintain any centralised data of internet suspensions.
This holds significance as India ranks third globally when it comes to shutting down the internet.
According to a report, Internet shutdowns, ordered by central, state and district level authorities in India, lasted a total of 1,157 hours in 2021. This led to a cumulative loss of $583 Mn and impacted over 59 Mn people across the country.
India was only eclipsed by strife-torn Myanmar and Nigeria, where these blackouts lasted 12,238 and 5,040 hours respectively.
J&K has been at the receiving end of such internet blackouts. The first reported internet shutdown in India took place in Jammu and Kashmir in 2012, when mobile internet services were suspended during protests against a movie that allegedly hurt Islamic sentiments.
Since 2012, the Union Territory has seen over 320 instances of internet blackout, followed by Rajasthan with over 78 shutdowns. Uttar Pradesh comes a distant third with 30 instances of internet suspension.
This also comes after MP Shashi Tharoor-led Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, flagged frequent internet shutdowns. Slamming the Centre, Tharoor called for defining the parameters and setting up of a robust mechanism for internet shutdowns.
Barely a day ago, internet services were snapped indefinitely in Jharkhand’s Hazaribag and adjoining districts following violent communal clashes. A week ago, the local administration in Arunachal Pradesh’s Itanagar had ordered suspension of all internet services over a protest by a local group. In October last year, mobile internet services were snapped across Rajasthan during Rajasthan Administrative Services preliminary exams.
Internet and telecommunication blackouts have been known to impinge on freedom of expression, affect local businesses and impede the studies of students. While there are instances where the cases are genuine but in the absence of a robust mechanism, the situation could only worsen.