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Legality And Socio-Economic Impact Of Internet Shutdown In India

With 554 internet shutdowns since 2012, half of which were imposed after 2019 India has earned the title of internet shutdown capital of the world. With 320 shutdowns, the state of Jammu and Kashmir tops the list. The state also witnessed the longest internet shutdown of 552 days when there was either no internet or low speed (2G) internet available. It started on August 4, 2019 and was lifted by the government on February 6, 2020.

In terms of duration, the internet was suspended for 13,000 hours in 2019 and 2020 alone. According to a report India witnessed internet shutdown for 8,927 hours in 2020 which cost the country Rs. 20,973 crores. It means that each hour of internet shutdown costs India Rs. 2.34 crore. Though according to section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act Internet shutdown can be imposed only in situations of public emergency or public safety, the government frequently resorts to shutdown for various other reasons.

On 26th September 2021, Rajasthan government imposed internet shutdown and bulk sms/mms shutdown in 5 districts. Namely Jaipur rural, Jhunjhunu, Alwar, Sikri and Dausa for 12 hours to prevent cheating in Rajasthan Eligibility Exam for Teachers (REET) exam. This shutdown ended up affecting more than 250 lakh people disrupting daily life, education and e-commerce among others. It was despite the fact that in Dhirendra Singh Rajpurohit v. State of Rajasthan (DB Civil Writ No. 10304 of 2018), the Rajasthan Government provided an undertaking before the High Court of Rajasthan stating that it would not impose internet shutdowns for the purpose of preventing cheating in examinations.

In January, 2020, the Supreme Court of India gave its judgment in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India case AIR 2020 SC 1308.The Supreme Court said that access to information via the Internet is a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution and that freedom to conduct trade, business or occupation using the internet is also a fundamental right under article 19(1)(g) of Indian constitution. Any restrictions on such have to follow the mandate under Article 19(2) and 19(6) of the constitution, including the test of proportionality. While having a reasonable time duration rather than being arbitrary and indefinite.

This judgment also subjected the government to judicial scrutiny for abuse of rights under section 144 Cr.P.C. Despite the judgment, these directions are frequently ignored by the government and 129 internet shutdowns were imposed across the country in 2020 and 45 internet shutdowns were imposed in 2021 . We will be discussing the impact of these shutdowns on the everyday life of the common people in our country. Emphasis will be on the economic and social impact of these internet shutdowns in India.

What Constitutes An Internet Shutdown?

There are multiple definitions of Internet Shutdown. It's often referred to as internet blackouts, blanket internet ban, digital curfew and more. Most of them mean affecting the access to the internet usually by a government which may be restricted in a geographical area, time. Access now defines it as:

An internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.

Economic Impact Of Internet Shutdown

Internet Shutdowns have a huge economic loss associated with them. The transit to online mechanisms in covid has led to further reliance on the internet as a medium for work, education, access to essential services such as health care and judiciary which all moved online.

Online shopping, banking services, government portals all are affected in the event of an internet shutdown. This results in a huge economic loss for the nation. It is estimated that internet shutdown in India costed India $2.8 billion in 2020 alone.

Internet Shutdowns lead to missed opportunities. Having a contradictory ground reality and national schemes don't help in building investor confidence. Digital India is a flagship programme of the Government of India with a vision to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. Digital India has the aim to lead an inclusive growth for all. The Internet is an essential ingredient for a Digital India.

Total Internet users in India were 825.30 million at the end of Mar-21. The growing number of Internet users has been a commendable achievement for India at the same time India has also got the distinction of being the worlds 'internet shutdown capital'.

The mixed signals by India towards internet access and freedom are difficult to interpret. What is clear is that India has a large number of Internet users who are being hurt in the process. Restriction on the Internet has already led to losses in billions of US dollars for India and with the growing transition of small and medium sized business to online platforms the losses will only increase if internet shutdowns are used to restrict freedom of citizens. For a robust economy to function rights of citizens have to be respected with utmost sincerity.

Legal Provisions Related To Shutdown

Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973:

Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code is used by the government to impose internet blackouts in various areas. It gives power to a District Magistrate, Sub-divisional Magistrate or an Executive Magistrate to issue directions to maintain public order in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger.

Section 69A of The Information Technology Act, 2000:

It grants the Central Government, or any officer designated by it, the authority to direct the blocking of public access to any information via any computer resource in the interest of India's sovereignty, integrity etc.

The Gujarat High Court upheld the government's ability to use Section 144 Cr.P.C. in the case of Gaurav Sureshbhai Vyas v. the State of Gujarat, rejecting the argument that the government lacked the authority to shut down the internet under Section 144 because the ability to block information on a computer is connected to Section 69A of the IT Act.

Suspension Rules under Telegraph Act 1885:

Under the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, the government issued the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules in 2017.

When passing an order to shut down the internet, the regulations stipulate certain safeguards that must be followed, some of which are as follows:

  • Such directions should be issued by order of Secretary to Government of India in Home Ministry or by Secretary to State government in charge of Home Department in case of state and, in unavoidable circumstances by an officer who has been duly authorized by Union Home Secretary or State Home Secretary. Within 24 hours of its issuance, this order must receive confirmation from a competent authority; if confirmation is not received, the order is void.
     
  • Any such order must be justified, and a copy must be sent to the Review Committee within one working day. The Review Committee must meet within five days to record its findings regarding whether the order is in compliance with Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act, which provides for Power of government to take possession of licensed telegraphs and to order interception of messages on occurrence of any 'public emergency' or in the interest of 'public safety'
     
In Anuradha Bhasin v/s Union of India AIR 2020 SC 1308, Supreme Court explicitly recognised two things: that the freedom to access information is a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution; and that the freedom to conduct your trade, profession or business over the internet is also a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(g).

The court emphasized the need to follow certain safeguards when using the authority granted by Section 144 of the CRPC, 1973, such as conducting an investigation before making an order, communicating the order, determining its duration, etc. Both in times of immediate danger and when there is a threat of danger, Section 144 can be used to take corrective or preventive action. However, issuing repeated orders in violation of section 144 would be an abuse of power.

Additionally, it was noted that the order suspending internet access is subject to judicial review. The Court ordered that the review committee must conduct a periodic review of such suspension order within 7 working days of the previous review because the Telegraph Act's existing rules do not set a deadline for periodic review.

Conclusion
Rather than restricting access to the entirety of the Internet, India can stop access to social media and messaging platforms. To allow the functioning of services in other sectors such as healthcare, e-commerce, banking and others. The main reason for shutdowns has been in the interest of maintaining public safety and averting public emergencies. Allowing some services to function should help in reducing the losses and inconvenience caused to the general public. An Internet Blackout should be avoided.

The arbitrary internet shutdowns by India have resulted in significant losses to India. Attempts should be made to use these as more of a last resort.

Bibliography:
  • Internetshutdowns.in , an internet tracker maintained by Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC)
  • Top 10 VPN, a leading Virtual Private Network review website
  • Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, AIR 2020 SC
  • Article 19(1)(a) All citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression
  • Article 19(1)(g) All citizens shall have the right to to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business
Written By:
  1. Antriksh Shiva
  2. Kartik Rathee

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