Less than two weeks ago, tensions raised by a disagreement over the location of a wrestling match resulted in suspension of Internet services in Bishnah, a town 30 km from Jammu.

This is the 8th such shutdown of Internet services in India this year, according to the Software Freedom Law Center, an NGO focused on digital freedom issues.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has now unanimously adopted a resolution unequivocally condemning “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online.” The resolution was part of a broader document that dealt with protecting human rights in cyberspace.

Contrary to widespread media reportage that has indicated that India voted against the resolution, a perusal of UN documentation confirms that the resolution was adopted without a vote.

India did however vote in favour of amendments proposed by Russia and China that sought to delete references to a “human rights-based approach” to Internet access.

Rights in digital spaces

The crux of the document is a reaffirmation of an idea that has been the subject of two previous UN resolutions, that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. It also directs stakeholder nations to take steps to bridge the gender divide on the Internet, ensure proper protection to freedom of speech online and prevent human rights abuses that occur as a result of individuals exercising their right to freely use the Internet to express themselves.

“The resolution is a much-needed response to increased pressure on freedom of expression online in all parts of the world”, said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of Article 19, an NGO working towards protecting freedom of expression.

“From impunity for the killings of bloggers to laws criminalising legitimate dissent on social media, basic human rights principles are being disregarded to impose greater controls over the information we see and share online,” he added.

Not binding

United Nations resolutions are not legally binding, but attempt to guide countries in the framing of their policies. “Governments must now act on the international commitments in this resolution to protect freedom of expression and other human rights online, at all times,” said Hughes.

Bad track record

India’s approach to several issues discussed in the resolution has attracted a lot of criticism in recent times.

Until its repeal by the Supreme Court in 2015, Section 66A of the IT Rules Act allowed police to arrest citizens who had posted objectionable material online. The law was used famously used against political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and several other ordinary citizens who had criticised or poked fun at powerful political figures.

The country also has a controversial record when it comes to restricting Internet access. Governments at various levels have resorted to full-scale shutdowns of mobile telephony and Internet services when faced with volatile situations such as protests and riots.

There have been 30 state-mandated Internet blackouts in India since 2013, according to data maintained by the Software Freedom Law Center.

Limiting free discourse

“Shutdowns harm everyone and allow human rights crackdowns to happen in the dark, with impunity,” said Deji Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at Access Now, a digital rights advocacy group. “Citizens can’t participate fully in democratic discourse during elections.

The Human Rights Council’s principled stance is a crucial step in telling the world that shutdowns need to stop.” Internet shutdowns in India have been effected using Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which gives authorities power to take action to “curb unlawful assemblies or to prevent apprehended danger”.

The legality of such actions was challenged earlier this year, but the Supreme Court dismissed the petition citing law and order concerns.

“We are disappointed that democracies like South Africa, Indonesia, and India voted in favour of hostile amendments to weaken protections for freedom of expression online”, said Hughes, referring to the changes requested by the Russian and Chinese delegations.

According to Article 19, despite the overwhelmingly positive mandate that has been provided by the resolution, a lot more work remains to be done.

“In future HRC resolutions, states must tackle these issues head-on, including abusive laws that target legitimate online dissent, government efforts to undermine anonymity and encryption, and attempts to exert undue pressure on private ICT actors to engage in censorship.”