Dr. Pradeep Mahapatra
India claimed the second position in internet shutdowns during the first half of 2023 in the international level as per a survey report published by ‘SurfShark’, a global online connectivity research organization. While 42 internet shutdowns were recorded during the period, India experienced nine shutdowns. Iran had 14 shutdowns between January 1 and June 30, 2023 and elevated into the first position. The third position belonged to Pakistan with three shutdowns in the six months.
A three year status survey was conducted jointly by ‘Internet Freedom Foundation’ and ‘Human Rights Watch’ to locate shutdowns between January 2020 and December 2022 among various states in India. Kept a part Jammu and Kashmir, the study revealed that there was at least a single shutdown recorded in 18 states. Internet shutdowns during public protests peaked the list with 57 incidents followed by preventive measures during conduct of written tests for recruitment to government employment with 37 incidents, communal violence prompted 18 incidents and due to law and order issues ban clamped in 18 incidents.
The highest internet shutdown was recorded in Rajasthan. Among 85 incidents during the three years, 44 incidents referred to public protests. Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam state governments ordered internet shutdowns to prevent malpractice during conduct of recruitment examinations. In many instances internet service for mobile phones faced shutdown in the troubled regions. It is noteworthy that above 90 percent of Indians use smartphones to access internet.
In India, internet shutdowns are either complete or partial. In the former case, internet services are completely barred in the troubled regions, while in the later case broadband services are allowed and mobile services are closed down. In some cases specific use of certain applications are prohibited. Legally internet connectivity is considered as a part of freedom of expression guaranteed as a fundamental right under Article 19 of Constitution of India. Internet services can be interrupted for a limited duration under government orders, but not for indefinite period. Internet shutdown comes under judicial enquiry.
In our country internet shutdowns were ordered by police and district magistrates imposing section 144 of Code of Criminal Procedure till 2017. With increase in number of internet shutdowns central government issued ‘Temporary Suspension of Telcom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules 2017’. Internet shutdowns are managed under section 5(2) of ‘Indian Telegraph Act 1855’. Secretary of Home Department in the central government and Principal Secretaries of Home Departments of various state governments are empowered to issue orders for internet shutdowns. Internet shutdowns are not permitted under any other laws.
In a mechanism to review orders of internet shutdowns, committees are formed both at the central and individual state level. In the central level Cabinet Secretary, Secretaries of Law and Telcom and in the state level Chief Secretary, Secretaries of Law and Home affairs constitute the review committees. Each internet shutdown needs to be reviewed with five days of the occurrence. One of the earliest cases was filed in the Gujarat High Court during the ‘Patidar Movement’ on governments power for such bans. Several arguments were carried out on internet shutdowns at different high courts and the Supreme Court.
In the changed scenario as common citizens are increasingly dependent on internet for communication, financial transactions, trade-commerce, health care, education, administration and entertainment, internet shutdowns result in huge financial loss in the society. A report published by ‘Top10VPN’, a global tracker of internet data, indicated that during the first half of 2023 internet shutdowns across the nation have cost India about 2000 crore rupees. The loss is more than the loss amount of whole year during 2022.
While Ethiopia, a country relived from two year war incurred the highest losses globally, Myanmar under military rule since 2021 after a coup places itself in the second position. India faced internet shutdowns for 2,353 hours between January 1 and June 30, 2023. It is noteworthy that neither central government nor state governments publish enough comprehensive data on internet shutdowns. As a result one has to depend upon non-government sources, mainly foreign tracking agencies to gather data on the subject.
On critical examination on internet shutdowns in India it appears to be used as a convenient tool by government to manage law and order situations. It remains a fact that accessibility to internet in a developing society among more than half of the citizens, with poor media literacy, become a breeding ground for fake-news. Taking advantage of a minor social disturbance miscreants promote civic unrest and violence to achieve self-interests. As large sections of people are easily get influenced and motivated by viral videos circulated through social media, the administration use internet shutdowns as an effective weapon to control misinformation. But on the other hand, with non-availability of online discourses half-truths, rumours and exaggerated reports spread among people through mouth to mouth interpersonal communication. Media literacy can play an effective role to control such situations.
Instances of internet shutdowns to disrupt peoples protest movements indicate intolerance of the ruling political parties in charge of the government. Supreme Court has cautioned that internet shutdowns should not be treated as a routine administrative tool and established guidelines must be followed. It is the responsibility of the civil societies to advocate for free flow of internet connectivity for collective good of the people.
(English translation of the original Odia newsletter by the author circulated on September 1, 2023. https://tinyletter.com/pradeepmahapatra/letters/message-317
It is an open-access content, free for translation and reproduction)
Dr. Pradeep Mahapatra is a retired faculty of Journalism, Berhampur University, Odisha.https://about.me/pradeepmahapatra
Most Internet Shutdowns in last 3 years to curb protests: Report. Hindustan Times. Jan 15, 2023
Sawhney, Anoushka. Cost of Net bans till June this year more than in entire 2022. Business Standard (Bhubaneswar Edition). June 10, 2023.