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Summary: IT Standing Committee report on impact of internet shutdowns in India

In its report on the impact of internet shutdowns, the committee flagged the lack of data and suggested reforms.

“Frequent shutdown of Internet services is an indication to the fact that the State/UT Governments are resorting to this method as a convenient way to deal with any restive situations without properly assessing the effectiveness of such drastic measure in controlling such situations,” the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology observed in its report on the impact of internet shutdowns in India.

Tabled before the Parliament on December 9, this is the first time that the IT Committee has released a report on the matter even though India frequently ranks high on the numbers of internet shutdowns worldwide, with an AccessNow report finding that in 2020, of the155 net shutdowns that took place worldwide, 109 were in India.

The 83-page report studies the state of shutdowns in India, the legal basis, loopholes, etc., and goes on to give recommendations to the government. While committee recommendations are not binding on the government, the report is crucial as it includes inputs from expert stakeholders, officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Department of Telecommunications, and features international context as well.

For the complete report, please refer here.

Recommendations of the committee

Reforming internet shutdown mechanisms

Recommendations:

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  • The committee recommended that services that can be used by terrorists/anti-social elements in times of crisis, like Facebook, WhatsApp, etc be selectively blocked instead of complete internet shutdowns.
  • A clear-cut principle of proportionality and procedure for lifting internet shutdowns should be put in place, to prevent unnecessary extensions.
  • DoT must take efforts to sensitise state and UT governments about how lack of internet access detrimentally impacts freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (1) (a), and the right to carry on any trade or business under Article 19 (1) (g).

Reviewing the Telecom suspension rules

Recommendations:

  • The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) can consult with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Ministry of Law and Justice to review relevant sections of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency and Public Safety) Rules, 2017. Consultation from States and Union territories could also be taken in that regard, if necessary.
  • It also asked that a mechanism for regular consultation with Telecom Service Providers (TSPs), elected representatives, peoples organisations, commercial/industry bodies, civil society, etc should be laid down for the creation of a more holistic policy on internet shutdowns.
  • The rules should also be cognisant of technological advancement so that shutdowns can be done with bare minimum disruption to the public.
  • The DoT, in coordination with the MHA, should pass uniform guidelines and Standard Operating Procedures on internet shutdowns for States and Union Territories.  The two should also see to it that these guidelines and Supreme Court judgements are adhered to.
  • Non-official members like retired judges, eminent citizens, heads of public organisations, TSPs as well as MLA or the local MP could be added to the review committee that is to convene, according to the telecom rules, five days after an internet shutdown is ordered. The committee recommended this after noting that the current structure of the committee was ‘largely confined to the executive side of the Government’ and that this would allow them to take a broader view.

Collecting information regarding shutdowns

Recommendation:

  • The DoT and the MHA maintain a central database of all internet shutdown orders. This should contain additional information such as the number of times suspension has been imposed, reasons, duration, the decision of the competent authority, the decision of the Review Committees, and also whether any internet shutdown has been ordered by resorting to Section 144 of CrPC, etc.
  • On similar lines, the committee also asked that the DoT and MHA sensitise as well as monitor states and UTs against using Sec 144 of the CrPC (related to unlawful assembly) to order internet shutdowns.
  • A study on the impact of internet shutdowns, including economic impact and effectiveness in ensuring public safety, should be commissioned by the Government of India. The committee said this noting that internet shutdowns severely impact the local economy, press, education, democratic rights, etc.
  • A study needs to be undertaken on internet suspension rules followed by other democratic countries by the DoT, the committee recommended. It also noted that shutting down of internet to deal with different forms of civil unrest reflects poorly on India.

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I cover health technology for MediaNama, among other things. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

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