India ranks first in the world in Internet shutdown, which has earned it the dubious distinction of being called the âInternet shutdown capitalâ in the world.
Recently, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, chaired by Congressman Shashi Tharoor, in its report âSuspension of telecommunication and Internet services and their impactâ, called for setting the parameters and putting put in place a robust mechanism for Internet shutdowns.
The committee noted that the frequent suspension of telecommunications and Internet services affected people’s lives and freedoms, and caused a huge setback to the country’s economy.
Internetshutdowns.in, an internet tracking tool operated by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), records that there have been a total of 550 internet shutdowns in India since 2012, and over 50% of those shutdowns have been imposed since 2019.
âWe get these closures through media reports and stay orders issued by governments. These orders are not publicly available, they must then be obtained by filing RTI claims, âPrasanth Sugathan, legal director of SFLC.in told indianexpress.com.
The Tharoor-led committee noted that there is no centralized mechanism that maintains a database recording internet shutdowns imposed across the country.
The longest shutdown, according to the internetshudowns.in tracker, was in Jammu and Kashmir. This lasted for 552 days, when no internet or low speed internet (2G) was available. It was imposed there on August 4, 2019 and completely lifted on February 6, 2020.
Impact of the Internet shutdown on the economy
When Internet services are suspended, people’s ability to express themselves freely is limited, journalists have difficulty uploading photos and videos, students are cut off from their classes, accessing health services becomes difficult and the economy ultimately suffers.
India has led the global tally of Internet service suspensions over the past decade. In 2019 and 2020 alone, the internet and related services were suspended in India for more than 13,000 hours, with up to 164 shutdowns imposed.
Top 10 VPN, one of the leading VPN review websites, reported in 2020 that the internet was shut down in India for 8,927 hours and cost the country over $ 2.8 billion. US dollars (20,973 crore rupees). This means that the average cost of an internet shutdown in India in 2020 was over Rs 2.34 crore per hour.
According to the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), telecom operators lose 24.5 million rupees per hour in every Circle Area where there is a closure or limitation, the parliamentary committee said in its report. âOther businesses that depend on the Internet could lose up to 50% of the aforementioned amount,â he said.
Long-term internet shutdowns have even deeper impacts, such as business closures, loss of livelihoods, and children leaving school.
âPeople regularly depend on the Internet to stay in touch with family and friends, create local communities of interest, report public information, hold institutions to account, access and share knowledge,â he said. note.
Studies show that over the past five years India has suffered significant economic losses due to internet shutdowns. âFrequent Internet blackouts affect our reputation globallyâ¦ Internet shutdowns negatively impact India’s reputation as an attractive business destination,â said Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) in a press release.
When internet services can be closed
The grounds on which such an order may be issued include serious public order issues leading to a case of “public emergency” or a situation which threatens “public safety”.
The Home Office (MHA), however, informed the Parliament’s Standing Committee that public safety and public emergency – often used by state and central governments to justify the suspension of telecommunications and internet services in an area – are not defined in section 5 (2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, and therefore it is for the “competent authority to form an opinion” on whether an event threatens public safety and an emergency justifying an Internet ban in an area.
Sugathan points out that the telecommunications suspension rules clearly provide that an Internet suspension can only be imposed in a situation of public emergency or for public safety which must be carried out in accordance with Article 5 (2) of the Indian Telegraph Act.
âTherefore, no Internet shutdown can be enforced unless there is a public emergency or a threat to public safety. Any shutdown of the Internet imposed for reasons other than these two is arbitrary and illegal, âhe added.
“Frequent stops are not a solution”
“No, shutting down the Internet is certainly not a solution to most of the problems the government intends to solve by shutting down the Internet,” Sugathan said.
Internet shutdowns have also been used as an âadministrative convenienceâ tool in the past, for example to combat cheating on exams. “Closures imposed to stop rumors or fake news often cause panic among people because it also prevents them from receiving information from legitimate sources,” Sugathan noted. The government of Rajasthan has imposed a stop to stop cheating on the REET exam, he said, adding that cheating always occurs in other ways.
While the IFF points out that there is no empirical evidence to claim that Internet shutdowns prevent public disorder. âIn fact, research shows that in times of public unrest, the Internet allows individuals to seek help, verify information, and maintain contact with family and friends, all of which helps restore peace. .
Meanwhile, to prevent the misuse of the provisions related to the suspension of telecommunications services, the parliamentary panel suggested that the government should put in place an appropriate mechanism that could immediately decide on the merits or desirability of telecommunications / internet closures. âDefined parameters of what constitutes a state of emergency and public security can also be adopted and codified to ensure that there is no ambiguity in the choice of terrain by different states when setting up implementation of suspension rules. “
Experts told indianexpress.com that there is an urgent need for a better legislative framework with strong guarantees that will not allow the government to shut down the internet arbitrarily.
âLegislative reform is needed to better control the power to suspend the Internet, greater transparency and better record keeping of Internet shutdowns,â Sugathan said.