The govt must stop resorting to Internet shutdowns

| Updated on December 28, 2019 Published on December 27, 2019

They are unbecoming of a democracy, entail a huge economic cost

It is regrettable that India, the world’s largest democracy, now holds the dubious record of having the largest number of Internet shutdowns in the world. Since 2014, there have been 370 shutdowns ordered by the Centre and various States, of which nearly 100 shutdowns were reported in 2019 alone. The Internet has become the backbone of modern civilisation and drives innovation in everything from education to healthcare, from social media to entertainment and from mission-critical applications to opening newer horizons of knowledge. The UN has declared the Internet to be a human right. The Centre has rightly earmarked Internet access to all Indians as one of its top priorities, through projects such as Digital India, National Broadband Mission, and Smart Cities. The Centre must, therefore, adopt a more democratic and transparent approach with respect to Internet shutdowns.

Globally, Internet shutdowns have been associated with authoritarian regimes. As the Arab Spring uprising highlighted, the Internet can become an existential threat for authoritarian rulers; hence they seek to contain it. In India, Internet shutdowns have been ordered to stop the spread of rumours and ensure public safety during civil protest movements. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Internet has been shut down for over 145 days, making it the longest ever in a democracy. However, that there is no evidence to prove that shutdowns actually help stop political protests or spread of misinformation. In fact, the protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 have only gained momentum despite the Internet being shut down in various parts of the country.

While there are no proven benefits of closing down the Internet, there are serious economic repercussions. A report by ICRIER states that shutdowns in India are estimated to have cost the country over $3 billion since 2012. According to the Cellular Operators’ Association of India, the loss from Internet shutdowns has gone up in 2019 to ₹24.5 million per hour. Given the economic consequences, the policymakers should review the provisions under which authorities can impose an Internet shutdown. States are invoking Section 144, which has traditionally been used to issue curfews and dismiss unlawful assemblies. But being an archaic law, it is inadequate to deal with Internet shutdowns, as it leaves too much discretion in the hands of the authorities. Even the procedural guidelines governing Internet shutdowns issued under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 are implemented by the government machinery without any public oversight. A multi-stakeholder body comprising executives from the industry, law and security experts, citizens and the government should be formed to approve such shutdowns. Meanwhile, governments should cease to use Internet shutdowns as a means to muzzle its citizens.

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Published on December 27, 2019
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