According to Indian Express, the country has faced over 550 internet shutdowns since 2012, with over half of them being imposed from 2019 onwards. While the Constitution rules that suspension of telecom and internet services should only take place should a National Emergency befall the country, the government has been neglecting the boundaries and using these shutdowns as a propaganda tool. With far-reaching effects, internet shutdowns in India have resulted in many grave problems for the country, economically as well as democratically.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee for Information and Technology, headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, in its report titled ‘Suspension of Telecom and Internet Services and its Impact’ called for defining the parameters and a “robust mechanism” for internet shutdown. The committee quoted, “when the Government’s thrust is on digitization and knowledge economy with free and open access to the internet at its core, frequent suspension of internet on flimsy grounds is uncalled for and must be avoided. The Committee, therefore, recommends that a proper mechanism is put in place at the earliest to decide on the merit or appropriateness of telecom/internet shutdowns.”
The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, issued rules necessary to be followed while passing an order of Internet suspension. The reasons must clearly be included in the order and the order needs to be forwarded to a review committee the day after its issuance and must be reviewed by the committee within five days in accordance with section 5(2) of the telegraphic act that allows the government to restrict the transmission of messages in case of a public emergency or for the safety of the people.
Though the central government has never ordered a nationwide internet shutdown, India still tops the list of internet shutdowns globally. The Software Freedom Law Centre’s tracker states that there have been about 381 shutdowns since 2012, out of which 106 were in 2019 alone. The 2019 shutdown of Jammu and Kashmir is recorded to be the longest ever in any democratic country. The UT experienced an internet shutdown which was 552 days long from August 4 2019 up till February 6, 2020. Internet access at this time was either non-existent or only at 2G speeds.
With rules being neglected, the freedom of speech and trade on the Internet which is a fundamental right is often overlooked. Internet shutdowns have not only led to untold suffering for the public but also to grave economic losses. There should be more checks by the government to review the appropriateness of the rules on telecom or internet bans. Businesses relying on Internet services face up to 50% losses.
Many states in India including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Rajasthan have had multiple Internet shutdowns in 2019-20. Despite this, there is no maintenance of records of the shutdown orders with the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) or the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The officials of DOT and MHA reported that they were unaware of the total number of shutdowns that have been imposed. While the government’s thrust is on digitization, we’re still here topping the lists of internet shutdowns, along with being labeled “Internet shutdown capital” globally, without there being any proper records for the same.
Internet outages might seem very easy to live through but one can’t imagine the distress that follows when you can’t even have the access to the necessities of the present times. Students facing network issues cannot attend online classes or even access the required material for their courses. For those subjected to online examinations, the fear of not being able to submit their papers on time, after months of preparations and pressure, is something that adds to the tally of major inconveniences for the youth of the nation. Long-term Internet shutdowns have limited the public’s freedom of expressing freely as well. Journalists struggle to provide any kind of news online since they cannot upload pictures or videos. Students, on the other hand, are cut off from classes and even forced to drop out of school. Moreover, access to healthcare facilities also becomes difficult. Lack of proper internet facilities also affects businesses, online services, and so on, ultimately affecting the country’s economy. According to studies, India has suffered significant economic losses due to Internet shutdowns over the past 5 years.
There should be strict monitoring of the rules of the Telephone Telegraphic Act which states that all kinds of telecom or Internet services can only be suspended during a public emergency or for the safety of the people. Experts have suggested that there is an urgent need for a better legislative framework with strong safeguards to curb the government’s arbitrary internet shutdown bids. There should be a proper authority to monitor whether an event hampers public safety and the necessity of warranting internet ban.
Samreen Khan is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Anzal Khan
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.