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All Posts | Jul 14,2018

Meet the latest threat to public safety: Cheating during examinations

On Thursday, July 12, 2018, it was reported by several media outlets that the Rajasthan Police had obtained permission from the Government to suspend Internet Services for two consecutive days i.e. 14th and 15th July as a precautionary measure to prevent cheating during the Police Constable recruitment examinations. Despite initial reports that the shutdowns would remain confined to areas within a five kilometer radius of examination centers, Internet services are likely to remain unavailable across most if not all of the state owing to the apparent infeasibility of hyper-localized shutdowns. The Udaipur Superintendent of Police was quoted by UdaipurBlog as saying, “On both 14th and 15th July, Internet services would be unavailable in the city. Initially, we tried to ban Internet services in only those areas of the city where the centers of these exams were. But since the city has 24 exam centers, it would be difficult to ban Internet in specific areas. Hence, it is possible that the Internet would be unavailable in the entire district.

While Internet shutdowns have become almost a standard state response during law and order situations in India, it is still highly unusual to see a shutdown being imposed to prevent cheating during examinations. That being said, this is not the first time an Internet shutdown was ordered in Rajasthan to prevent cheating during examinations. Earlier this year on 11th February, 2018, Internet services were suspended in the districts of Jalore, Dhaulpur and Sikar for several hours to prevent cheating during the Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teachers (REET).

It is worth taking a look at this point at the legal framework governing Internet shutdowns in India, so as to understand how shutdowns come to be imposed for reasons such as preventing cheating during examinations. The relevant laws to consider are Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1855 (hereinafter, “the Act”), and the Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency and Public Safety) Rules, 2017 (hereinafter, “the Rules”).

According to Section 5(2) of the Act, Central/State Governments or their authorized officers can, among other things, prevent the transmission of any telegraphic message or class of messages during a public emergency or in the interest of public safety, if it is considered necessary or expedient in the interest of (1) sovereignty and integrity of India; (2) security of the State; (3) friendly relations with foreign states; (4) public order; or (5) preventing incitement to the commission of an offence. As the term “telegraph” is very broadly defined under the Act, Section 5(2) can be interpreted to authorize Internet shutdowns as well.

The procedure to be followed when suspending Internet services under the authority of Section 5(2) is specified by the Rules. According to the Rules, Internet services can be suspended only by a reasoned order issued in writing by the Central or State Home Secretaries, or by an authorized officer not below the rank of Joint Secretary in unavoidable circumstances. The Rules also specify among other things that the Centre and States shall constitute Review Committees that will meet within five working days of the issue of Internet shutdown orders to review compliance with Section 5(2) of the Act.

It is evident from the language of both the Act and the Rules that suspension of telegraph/telecom/Internet services was contemplated only as a response to public emergencies or in the interest of public safety. A vast majority of Internet shutdowns recorded in India since 2012 have also been consistent with this line of thought, as the primary motivation behind these shutdowns has been preventing the circulation of rumors and misinformation online that in turn could escalate law and order breakdowns. While it would take an incredible stretch of logic to say that “cheating during examinations” constitutes a public emergency or threat to public safety, the fact that such terms and others employed by Section 5(2) of the Act are undefined in the Telegraph Act or elsewhere means that it is entirely up to the subjective interpretation of the issuing authority to determine what qualifies as a public emergency or threat to public safety. Though the Central and State Review Committees established by the Rules are meant to prevent overbroad interpretations of the Act, the efficacy of this review process is entirely questionable as the Committees are required to convene only within five working days of the issue of Internet shutdown orders, by which time most shutdowns would already have been imposed and lifted. Even if the Committee were to determine in such a situation that an Internet shutdown was wrongfully imposed, the damage would already have been done, rendering the finding moot.

Of all the countries in the world, India has the distinction of being home to the highest number of Internet shutdowns, that too by a very wide margin. According to our Internet Shutdowns Tracker, 70 shutdowns were recorded across India in 2017 alone, and there have already been at least 68 shutdowns halfway into 2018. If Internet shutdowns continue to rise in number and frequency as they have rapidly done since 2012, the future of a Digital India will be in serious jeopardy. Internet shutdowns, even as a state response to law and order situations, must be urgently reevaluated considering the extent of harm it causes to the economy and the larger society. It is imperative for our law makers and enforcers understand that Internet shutdowns, while offering an extent of control in the short term, will cause incredible damage to the nation in the long term if left unchecked.

All Posts | Sep 27,2017

Summary Report: Digital Citizen Summit, 2017 (September 21-22, 2017; New Delhi)

The second Digital Citizen Summit was organised on September 21-22, 2017 by Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. SFLC.in was an associate partner of the summit.

The summit aimed at finding solutions to bridge the digital divide, ways to ensure access to information, and creating a platform for participants to raise awareness about internet rights, digital literacy, and digital security. The sessions organised during the summit covered the broad themes of access, digital literacy and empowerment, privacy and freedom of expression.

We organised two sessions at the summit and participated as speakers in two others.

Sessions Organised:

  • Session on Internet Shutdowns (September 22nd, 12:00-13:00): This session was co-organised by Digital Empowerment Foundation and SFLC.in. The speakers for the session included Vaishali Verma (Counsel, SFLC.in), Ritu Srivastava (General Manager, Research and Advocacy, Digital Empowerment Foundation) and Sarath MS (Technologist, SFLC.in) with Prasanth Sugathan (Legal Director, SFLC.in) moderating the session.

     

    The session began with Sarath presenting the Internet shutdown tracker maintained by SFLC.in. Highlighting the steep rise in the number of shutdowns since 2012, he added that India has already witnessed 55 shutdowns in 2017, 1.7 times more than in 2016.

    Vaishali Verma began with emphasizing the need for Internet in the present era of digital India. Highlighting the three month long Internet ban in Darjeeling, she shared the experiences of the people including students, businessmen, and the locals, giving an insight into the problems faced by them due to the embargo. She further discussed the new rules for Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services in case of public emergency and public safety, issued by the Department of Telecommunications, and its shortcomings. Lastly, she underlined the economic losses faced by the country due to the Internet shutdowns.

    Ms. Ritu Srivastava dealt with the nature and psychological impact of Internet shutdowns. She gave several instances where Internet shutdowns had profound psychological impact on people of all ages. Finally, discussing about the transparency in the orders imposing shutdowns, Ritu criticised the lack of prior notifications from Internet Service Providers to the users before severing Internet services.

  • Session on Secure Communications (September 22nd, 14:00-15:00)This session was led by Sarath in association with Sukhbir Singh (TOR Developer) and focused on best practices to ensure privacy, security and anonymity in our online activities. Sarath discussed the prevalent state of surveillance in the country and its effect on the freedom of people. He further discussed various tools and applications for mobile phone that allow encrypted communications. He demonstrated one of these applications which provide for secure and encrypted text communications.

     

    Sukhbir elaborated upon the need for secure and private browsing in the surveillance-ridden world. He explained the principle behind the working of TOR browser and its advantages against other methods including VPNs.

Sessions Participated in:

  • Don’t let it stand: How do women deal with online abuse? Curbing the freedom of expression for women in digital spaces (September 21st, 12:00-13:00): This session was co-organised by Internet Democracy Project and Feminism in India. The session focused on the online abuse faced by women and marginalised community, its effect on people, gaps in the existing support systems- both legal and platform-based, and non-legal strategies to combat gender-based online harassment. SFLC.in was represented by Prasanth Sugathan and Vaishali Verma in this session.

     

     

  • Regulating search engines: Competition, free speech and human rights (September 22nd, 14:00-15:00): This session was organised by Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University, Delhi. The panel discussed the regulation of search engines, listing of search results, matters relating to competition amongst search engines in front of Competition Commission of India and the pending litigations in Supreme Court. Prasanth Sugathan from SFLC.in moderated this session.

All Posts | Sep 23,2017

New Rules on Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services in case of Public Emergency or Public Safety

The Ministry of Communications, on August 7th, 2017, notified new rules for the suspension of telecom services in case of public emergency or public safety, and consequently, the suspension of Internet services in India. These rules known as the “Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017” were issued under section 7 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885.

According to these rules, an order for suspension of telecom services containing can be made by a ‘competent authority’ which would be:

  • In case of Government of India, the Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs.
  • In case of a State Government, the Secretary to the State Government in-charge of the the Home Department.

However, ‘in unavoidable circumstances’, such an order might be issued by an officer of the rank of Joint Secretary or above who has been duly authorised by the Union Home Secretary or State Home Secretary. This order will be subject to the confirmation from the competent authority as stated above within 24 hours and will cease to exist in case of failure of receipt of such confirmation.

The rules mandate that the order passed by the competent authority must “contain reasons for such direction” and a copy of the order shall be forwarded to a Review Committee by the next working day. The Review Committee shall comprise of:

  • Where it is constituted by the Central Government- Cabinet Secretary, and Secretaries of Legal Affairs and Department of Telecommunication;
  • Where it is constituted by State Government- Chief Secretary, Secretary Law or Legal Remembrancer In-Charge, Legal Affairs and Secretary to the State Government (other than the Home Secretary).

The Review Committee will have to meet within five working days of the issuance of order and record its findingson the suspension order whether it is in accordance with the provisions of sub-section (2) of section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act.

Moreover, the rules require the telegraph authority and service providers to designate officers in every licensed service area or State or Union territory, as the nodal officers to receive and handle such requisitions.

The chart below lays down the rules in a more simplified manner. These rules come in the light of the increasing instances of Internet shutdowns that India has been witnessing over the past few years. According to our Internet Shutdowns Tracker, this year has already seen 55 instances of Internet shutdowns so far.

All Posts | Sep 18,2017

[RTI] Darjeeling Internet Ban: 3 months and counting

The ongoing Internet shutdown in Darjeeling, West Bengal completes 3 months today. This day, three months earlier, mobile Internet was shutdown in the city due to the ongoing agitation for a separate Gorkhaland. Two days later, on 20thJune, the orders were extended to the broadband services as well, effectively shutting down the entire Internet. Since then, the Internet ban has been extended several times by the district administration, without any hope of it being restored in the near future. We published a short report on the impact of the embargo on the daily lives of the people as the subsisting shutdown completed two months.

In August, we filed an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005, seeking details regarding the ongoing shutdown in Darjeeling and the copies of the orders that authorised these internet shutdowns. However, we were informed in response to the application, that the information asked by us could not be provided as it is exempted from disclosure under para 1(A)(2) of Notification No. 541-PAR(AR)/O/3M-29/2005 Pt. VIIIA dated 29 August, 2005 of Department of Personnel & Administrative Reforms, Government of West Bengal. Hence, the application was disposed of.

Notably, para 1(A)(2) of the above-mentioned notification exempts the Home Department, under section 24(4) of the Right to Information Act, 2005, to provide information under Political Branch relating to the Interception of mails and other personal communications including phones/mobiles under Indian Post Office Act, 1898 and Indian Telegraph Act, 1885.

The response to the RTI application is reproduced below:

All Posts | Aug 18,2017

Darjeeling Internet Ban Completes Two Months

Today marks the completion of two months of continuous Internetshutdown in Darjeeling, West Bengal. Two months back, on 19thJune, 2017, mobile Internet services were blocked in the town following deaths of party supporters in violent clashes between the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and security forces after the former called for a complete strike in its agitation for a separate Gorkhaland.

The protests set off in the city after the house of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) president Bimal Gurung was raided by the police and security forces. The raids are believed to have been conducted following his party’s opposition over the State Government’s decision to make Bengali language mandatory in schools. A majority Gorkha population in Darjeeling and adjoining hills speaks Nepali language. An indefinite strike was called by GJM supporters after the raids, with the protest turning into a demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland.

While the mobile Internet blockade was already in place, Darjeeling faced a complete shutdown of Internet services on 20th June, 2017 after an order was issued by the District Magistrate of Darjeeling requesting all broadband and mobile internet service providers to temporarily stop Internet service in the strike-hit hills for a period of seven days. However, the ban was extended till 4th July, 2017 to prevent the deterioration in law and order situations. Since then, the Internet ban has been extended by the district administration several times.

The blanket Internet ban in Darjeeling has plunged the entire city into a state of virtual darkness. While it has impaired the communication services, it has also impeded media reportage of the agitation, effectively restricting reporting to the newspapers from within the city. Verbal orders have been given by the district magistrate to the local news channels in Darjeeling to stop reporting on the agitation. In the absence of Internet, journalists on ground are having a hard time relaying their stories to the desk. The e-papers published from Darjeeling have also faced a major hit due to the shutdown.

Students are among those that have been worst hit due to the Internet ban. They have been unable to access the Internet for academic purposes for two months now. SFLC.in reached out to Ayush Chaurasia, a student of class 11, who shared his plight:

It has been over two months, I haven’t gone to school. All the schools in Darjeeling are closed due to persistent upheaval and chaos. As far as the Internet is concerned, I am unable to access any kind of information. I used to continuously visit many online portals for my research work but now I cannot even study a small piece of information as there is no Internet. I cannot connect to my friends and there is no exchange of any kind of information due to Internet Shutdown.”

Due to the lack of Internet connectivity, class nine students were unable to fill up their board examination forms. Similarly, a lot of students who had finished their 12th standard board exams were unable to fill up their college admissions forms due to the embargo. These students risk losing a year due to the passing of deadlines for admissions to colleges. While the Darjeeling Teachers’ Association met the district magistrate seeking restoration of Internet services, their demands were rejected by the authorities on the grounds of persisting law and order problem in the hills.

Geeta Devi, a class 12th student told SFLC.in:

The 64 days long Internet shutdown in Darjeeling started in the month of June, that was the time when admissions in most of the colleges and universities begin. As I passed my class 12 exams, I was thinking of pursuing law but could not even apply for the course as there were no Internet services. Even the mobile networks kept on fluctuating which made it difficult to get any kind of updates on admissions and otherwise. I am not the only one who is suffering, all the students in Darjeeling are facing similar issues.”

Businesses have also been hard-hit by the Internet ban. With most of the businesses relying on Internet banking and online transactions in this era of cashless economy and Digital India, they have been facing huge losses with the ban on Internet services. Sunil Prasad, a local businessman, shared his views on the Internet shutdown with SFLC.in:

Internet Shutdown has severely disturbed our lives. I am the sole bread earner of my family and my entire business has collapsed. As a businessman, I am majorly dependent on online transactions that I make or receive but in the past 60 days, I haven’t been able to do that and the entire family is suffering. We are not even able to recharge our phones. My children who stay in Delhi, do that for us. Right now, we are experiencing a complete cut-off from the world outside. I have no access to any kind of information. The situation is getting worse day by day.”

The plight of a common citizen is evident in the words of a local resident, Turni Bhagowati, who shared his concerns with SFLC.in:

Many a people in Darjeeling have bought things on EMIs and loans. I also bought a scooter on EMI but due to Internet shutdown I haven’t been able to use the net banking and failed to pay the bank’s EMI on time. The banks are closed and online transactions cannot be facilitated. In the first week, I asked one of my friends who stays in Pune to do that for me but as it has already been more than 2 months, and the situation is getting worse, I cannot ask for more help. There is no hope of immediate solutions to the problems that are rising every day due to this extended Internet shutdown.”

Though there has been an appeal by the Home Minister Rajnath Singh as well as several demands byGorkha Janmukti Morcha activists and other hill parties to restore Internet services in the area, the State Government has refused to lift the ban citing law and order problems. Moreover, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has been filed in the Calcutta High Court challenging the ban on Internet services by the State Government in the Darjeeling hills.

The situation in Darjeeling serves to demonstrate how an extended Internet shutdown can bring life to a virtual standstill, significantly impacting free expression and crippling general society and the economy in the process. Now more than ever, it is necessary for the Government to recognize that Internet shutdowns are not a justifiable response to law and order problems, specially considering the steadily climbing frequency and durations of shutdowns in India. There is simply no room for such draconian and disproportionate measures in a democracy like India that emphasizes a great deal on the Internet in its development agenda.

All Posts | May 05,2017

RTI responses provide copies of Internet shutdown orders

India has seen a steep rise in the number of Internet shutdowns over the last few years. At SFLC.in, we have been tracking such instances of Internet shutdowns – see our dynamic Internet Shutdown Tracker at internetshutdowns.in for details.  These shutdowns are generally imposed under the authority of orders issued by State Governments under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, blocking mobile and/or fixed line Internet services for different reasons.

In May 2016, we filed applications under Right to Information Act, 2005 seeking, amongst other details, copies of the orders that sanctioned Internet shutdowns in Haryana in February 2016. In response to the applications and the information sought, we received the following information:

  1. Copies of orders issued under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, by the District Magistrates  of Jind, Hisar and Bhiwani, ordering the stoppage of the Internet services, and
  2. Copies of orders issued by the District Magistrates of Jind and Hisar, allowing for restoration of Internet services.

These orders are reproduced below:

All Posts | Mar 22,2017

At Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia, Spain

SFLC.in participated in the Internet Freedom Festival (IFF) which was held between 6th and 10th of March, 2017 in the beautiful city of Valencia in Spain. IFF is a community organized unconference that brings together digital rights defenders – journalists, activists, technologists, policy advocates, digital safety trainers, and designers – to create an inclusive and diverse space for discussions and collaborations.

Under the theme, Internet Freedom: Present and Future, we organized a conversational session on “Analyzing the Causes and Impacts of Internet Shutdowns”with a full hall of about 80 participants. The irony of such high incidence of this issue in a country that takes pride in being the largest democracy in the world was evident in the points raised throughout the session. There was also discussion about the need for more specific studies on the economic and social impact of these shutdowns that provides regional data which can enhance the advocacy efforts in those regions.

We also showcased our Internet Shutdown Tracker project which maps the growing incidents of Internet shutdowns across India and was much appreciated, especially by activists from countries which have faced numerous such shutdowns.

We were also invited to the panel on “Data Protection Laws and its different manifestations” which was organized together by Digital Rights Foundation, Access Now and Electronic Frontier Foundation. Other panelists included Nighat Dad (DRF), Wafa BenHassine (Access Now), Mohamad Najem (SMEX). The panel was moderated by Nica Doom (EngageMedia). India’s lack of an overarching legislation that should ideally cover the gamut of data privacy and security concerns that have been surfacing of late across India. We focused particularly on the problems around Aadhaar and its weak mechanisms in ensuring privacy and protection of personal information from being misused. We also took part in the discussion on Mass Surveillance in India and held a discussion on Aadhaar’s potential as a surveillance tool by government and its law enforcement agencies.

All Posts | Feb 09,2017

[Press Release]: ‘Internetshutdowns.in’ launched by SFLC.in as a one stop destination for resources on Internet shutdowns in India

‘Internetshutdowns.in’ launched by SFLC.in as a one stop destination for resources on Internet shutdowns in India

New Delhi, February 8: Delhi-based not-for-profit legal services organization SFLC.in today launched ‘internetshutdowns.in’, a new portal to provide policy makers, academics, media-persons and the public at large with a repository of instances where blanket bans on Internet services, either mobile or fixed line, were imposed in India. Till date, their data reflects 62 incidents of Internet shutdowns across various regions in 12 states in the country, with 30 being reported in 2016 itself, and 4 instances in the first month of 2017.

‘Internetshutdowns.in’ also hosts a continually-updated Internet Shutdown Tracker for India. This tracker offers detailed records of all Internet shutdowns reported from 2013 and presents this data on an interactive map. It also contains resources such as an analysis of the legality of such incidents in the country, along with a study of these shutdown trends in India based on the medium that was restricted, duration of shutdown, as well as the nature of the measure, i.e. if it was a preventive or reactive action. It revealed that the number of shutdowns increased more than two fold from 14 in 2015 to 30 in 2016.

Mishi Choudhary, President and Legal Director at SFLC.in said, “There is a global consensus that access to Internet is a human right, in a digital and connected world. Yet, many countries block Internet services as responses to conflict situations, or even for trivial reasons such as to prevent cheating during examinations. Unfortunately, these shutdowns not only imperil civil liberties, but also grievously hurt the economy, as a recent report by the US policy think-tank Brookings Institution showed. The shutdowns in 2015-16 cost Indian businesses an estimated amount of $968 million (Rs 6,485 crore). As the pace of shutdowns increases, the costs will mount, particularly given the new emphasis on transactions by Internet payment systems linked to Aadhaar. Shutdowns are a very imprecise means of achieving any social end, imposing immense collateral damage. In democracies, essential social facilities should not be turned off by the State, which acts in the peoples’ interests. The dependence on mobile Internet services for public safety and order, education, business, and family life is a fact of our existence. It should not be intentionally broken by government, pursuing one form of ‘law and order’ at the expense of all other social functioning.”

“Internet shutdowns are a global, not merely an Indian problem,” said Ms Choudhary. “SFLC.in has been working with Access Now on its global campaign to study and reverse the adoption of shutdown policies around the world. We acknowledge their assistance and leadership in this area.”

This resource portal also provides users with the option to report an Internet shutdown in their vicinity to keep the shutdown tracker up to date with disruptions SFLC.in has recently written to the Additional Secretary of Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Dr. Ajay Kumar requesting him to take requisite action to ensure that stable and reliable Internet services are assured to citizens, especially at a time when the Digital India programme is encouraging e-governance initiatives and the Government is advocating for transactions through cashless modes.

Per SFLC.in’s record, the state of Jammu and Kashmir has experienced highest number of shutdowns (27 since 2012). Out of the total 62 shutdowns recorded since 2012, 44 were targeted at mobile Internet services, 8 targeted both, fixed-line and mobile Internet services, while no conclusive information was available for 10 incidents and no shutdowns targeting fixed-line services alone were recorded during their period of study.

All Posts | Feb 07,2017

Letter to MeitY raising concern about frequent Internet shutdowns in India

In the last few years, India has witnessed a constant increase in the instances of Internet shutdowns in the country. These incidents point to the issuance of orders mostly by State Governments to block mobile and/or fixed line Internet services in an attempt to curb unrest or violence or as a preventive measure in certain cases. SFLC.in has been keeping a track of such instances in India and has maintained a dynamic tracker as well. In this regard, we wrote to Dr. Ajay Kumar, the Additional Secretary at Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology raising concern about the rising frequency of such shutdowns. The text of this letter can be accessed below.

However, since the sending of this letter, we have updated our Internet shutdown data as well as revised the shutdown trends. As of 6th February, 2017, we have tracked India to have experienced62 incidents of Internet shutdowns of varying durations across 12 states since 2012. This data can be accessed here. A revised version of the Internet shutdown trends can be accessed here.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

2nd February, 2017

To,

Dr. Ajay Kumar

Additional Secretary, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology

Electronics Niketan, 6 CGO Complex,

Lodhi Road, New Delhi- 110003

 

Dear Dr. Ajay Kumar,

Sub: Raising concern regarding frequent disruption of Internet services in India

I write to you on behalf of SFLC.in (Software Freedom Law Centre, India), a not for profit organization that works towards protection and promotion of digital freedoms and civil liberties on the online sphere. This is to draw attention to the increasing instances of limiting access to Internet services in entire towns, or districts in the country.

We have been consistently tracking such state imposed disruption of Internet services in different regions across the country, for reasons varying from restricting spread of hateful and communal messages on social media platforms, to prevention of cheating in exams. Till date, our record shows 49 Internet shutdowns in India from 2013 to 2016, with 28 such incidents being reported in 2016 itself.

Moreover, we have analysed these shutdown trends in the country based on the mode of service disconnected (fixed line, wireless, or both), the duration of shutdowns, as well as their nature, i.e. if restricting access to the internet was a preventive or a reactive measure. In our findings, we observed not only an overall increase in the number of shutdowns consistently over the years, but also noted that most of these shutdowns are instituted for mobile Internet services. At this point, it is important to be mindful that Internet proliferation in India is mostly through the provision of mobile networks, with the recent Performance Indicator Report by TRAI stating that as of September 2016, out of a total of 367.48 million Internet subscribers, 345.60 million subscribers access Internet through the medium of mobiles and dongles.

The flagship programme of the Government, the Digital India initiative and its aim to digitize provision of government services to ensure convenience and transparency, is laudable. However, as the applications of Internet expands to areas such as e-commerce, education, and e-governance, it has become an intrinsic part of every citizen’s day to day life. Especially in light of the Central Government’s recent decision to demonitize Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 currency notes, along with the encouraged use of applications and payment mechanisms such as BHIM (Bharat Interface for Money) and Aadhaar Enabled Payment Systems (AEPS) that involve digital transactions, assurance of stable and consistent Internet connectivity is imperative.

Such frequent disruptions of Internet services not only incur extremely high levels of economic losses, but also bring the lives of residents of that particular area to a standstill. A report by the Centre for Technology Innovation at Brookings Institute, that attempted to quantify the economic losses suffered by a country due to Internet shutdowns, adjudged India to have suffered highest losses in the world, along the lines of US $968 million due to such temporary restrictions on complete Internet access.

We at SFLC.in are aware that the Information Technology Act, 2000 provides for restriction of access to some online resources in certain situations related to security of state. Section 69A and the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 framed under this Section create a detailed framework and procedure for conditions that warrant temporary disabling of public access to contentious content. We acknowledge that for such reasons, a targeted restriction of online resources could be instituted as per Section 69A and this provision should act as the standard operating procedure instead of a complete restriction of Internet services on any medium in an area. In fact, even these Rules need to be reviewed to ensure that the restrictions imposed are necessary and proportionate.

Presently, most of the orders for such restrictions are issued by the state governments under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which is a power given to the state governments to issue directions to a person in case of emergencies to prevent apprehended danger or nuisance. In the past this provision has been used to curb unlawful assemblies of people, however, the current use of this clause as a legal basis to disable an entire communication network is arbitrary.

Therefore, we strongly urge the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to take requisite action that would prohibit the issuance of orders that make Internet services entirely inaccessible for a particular area, and rather recommend that Section 69A and the procedure established by the Rules therein be applied to limit the restriction to certain specific online content. In interest of transparency, we further request you to make public any such guidelines or recommendations issued to officials designated to order restriction of Internet access.

For your kind perusal, we are attaching our record of Internet shutdowns from 2013 to 2016, and the analysis of these shutdown trends mentioned earlier along with this letter. We sincerely hope that you will take note and take appropriate action on this issue that is affecting overall development of the country and welfare of the citizens.

Yours sincerely,

Mishi Choudhary

President and Legal Director , SFLC.in