Let The Net Work: Internet Shutdowns in India 2022
The Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a legal services organisation based in New Delhi, published this report on December 23, 2022. The report is based on data from the organisation’s ‘internet shutdowns tracker’ which has been documenting such shutdowns in India since 2012. It defines an internet shutdown as “a Government imposed disablement of access to the internet as a whole, in a particular locality, or localities, for any duration of time.”
The tracker gathers data on shutdowns through news and media, public orders relayed by the government as well as reports made directly by citizens. The organisation also files applications under the Right to Information Act, 2005, when information is unavailable publicly.
This 2022 report makes note of the frequency and duration of shutdowns, impacted regions, and the nature of shutdowns – preventive or reactive. Shutdowns imposed in anticipation of an event such as communal violence are termed ‘preventive’. Whereas those imposed after an event “to avoid more conflict” or “prevent the spreading of rumours” are classified as ‘reactive’ in the report. The report highlights the adverse impacts of shutdowns on human rights, the economy, education and healthcare. Additionally, it examines policies and legal developments in India that enable internet shutdowns.The 48-page report contains an introduction followed by six chapters: The Internet Shutdowns Tracker (Chapter 1); Impact Assessment of Internet Shutdowns (Chapter 2); Legal Framework for Internet Shutdowns (Chapter 3); Recent Legal and Policy Developments (Chapter 4); Stakeholder Mapping (Chapter 5); and Way Forward and Conclusion (Chapter 6).
The internet shutdowns tracker of the SFLC has documented 690 instances of internet shutdowns in India from 2012 to the time this report was published. The first shutdown recorded was implemented on January 26, 2012, in what was then the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
As per the report, the total number of shutdowns in the country in 2022 numbered more than 75. The highest number occurred in Jammu and Kashmir (43), Rajasthan (14) and Bihar (12). Out of a total of 75 shutdowns, the report states that 41 were ordered citing the reason of ‘terrorist’ activities and 24 cited ‘communal tension’ as the reason. An additional six were due to ‘protests/political tension’ and four were related to ‘cheating in exam’.
Internet shutdowns have an adverse impact on the economic stability of a region, states the report. An earlier report by the SFLC Living in Digital Darkness - A Handbook on Internet Shutdowns in India found that shutdowns equally impacted big companies and small traders as well as gig workers.
The report states that, in 2020, many beneficiaries of the Ayushman Bharat health scheme were unable to access health services due to internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir. Citing a Reuters article from May 2020, the report adds that many doctors in the region spoke of hurdles in accessing health services due to internet restrictions.
Citing a 2022 press release from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the report also highlights that a majority (96.33 per cent) of broadband users in India access the internet through mobile devices. This is particularly bad since, as per the organisation’s internet shutdowns tracker, more than 75 per cent of internet shutdowns affect mobile internet services.
Collecting news reports from various publications including The Hindu and The Wire, the report notes that recurring internet shutdowns have negatively impacted students’ education. In certain cases, students were unable to attend examinations. Others had to travel to different cities to source study materials.
Governments in India can enforce internet shutdowns through two legal provisions, the report states. The first is through Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 Code. The other is through the enforcement of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, enacted under Section 7 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885.
Internet shutdowns are often enforced citing ‘public safety’ and ‘public emergency’. The report recommends that the government must first declare such emergencies before shutting internet services. It adds that the terms must be defined and codified under a law. This will ensure that shutdowns are enforced only in cases of actual public emergencies.
Focus and Factoids by Paridhi Maheshwari.
Software Freedom Law Center, New Delhi
Software Freedom Law Center, New Delhi
23 Dec, 2022