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UN Report on Internet Shutdown

Gs Paper-2

Syllabus: Government policies and interventions

 

Context:

Recently released United Nations-backed report (by OHCHR) has highlighted that shutting down the internet affects people’s safety & well-being, hampers information flow and harms the economy

What is an Internet shutdown?

  • Internet shutdowns are measures taken by a government or on behalf of a government, to intentionally disrupt access to and the use of information and communications systems online.

 

Status:

  • As per #KeepItOn coalition (which monitors internet shutdown episodes across the world), documented 931 shutdowns in 74 countries from 2016-2021
  • India’s record: India blocked or disrupted internet connections 106 times and at least 85 of India’s internet shutdown episodes were in Jammu & Kashmir

Reasons behind it:

  • To subvert protests and political crisis: Almost half of all shutdowns recorded by civil society groups from 2016-2021 were carried out in the context of protests and political crises related to social, political or economic grievances.

Impact of Internet shutdown (as per the report):

  • Economic cost: It disrupts financial transactions, entrepreneurship, commerce and industry
    • The World Bank recently calculated that Internet shutdowns in Myanmar alone had cost nearly $2.8 billion from February-December 2021, reversing economic progress made over the previous decade.
  • Disrupts political transparency: Such disruptions undermine or eliminate access to digital tools that are critical for campaigning, promoting public discussion, conducting voting and overseeing the electoral processes
    • g. Shutdowns following protests during electoral periods in Belarus and Niger
  • Disrupts civic life:g. societal debates, works of NGO, SHG.
  • Interferes with health and education: E.g. for digital education and tele-medicines
  • Endangers vulnerable sections: women and girls who are in need of support and protection
  • Loss of creativity: People are not able to utilize their online creativity and long-term disruption may also affect their mental health

 

Recommendations

  • Stop imposing Internet shutdowns: It may be the last recourse but should be used rarely for legitimate reasons
  • Legitimate shutdown: Need to control the spread of hate speech, disinformation or other forms of content deemed illegal or harmful
  • Clear policies: There should be an unambiguous, publicly available and legitimate policy for any shutdown
  • Internet companies should engage and collaborate with stakeholders including government and civil society to prevent such disruption

 

<strong>Provisions related to shutdown in India </strong>

Temporary suspension of Telecom Services (public emergency and public safety) Rules 2017 under Indian Telegraph Act, 1885: It governs suspension, shutdown or any disruption in telcom services on the ground of Public emergency but only upto 15 days at once

Supreme court observations:

  • Right to internet is a fundamental right (subject to reasonable restrictions)included in the freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.
  • Restrictions on fundamental rights could not be in exercise of arbitrary powers.These freedoms could only be restricted as a last resort if “relevant factors” have been considered and no other options are there.
  • Any order passed to restrict or suspend judicial scrutiny will be subject to judicial scrutiny.
  • Suspension of internet services indefinitely is also a violation of telecom rules. 

 

SC Guidelines

The court recognised that the 2017 Rules are the only procedure to be followed to suspend Internet services in the occurrence of a “public emergency” or for it to be “in the interest of public safety”.

  1. The verdict reiterated that the competent authority to issue an order under the Suspension Rules, in ordinary circumstances, would be the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
  2. The Rules also say that in case the confirmation does not come from a competent authority, the orders shall cease to exist within a period of 24 hours.
  3. Clear reasons for such orders need to be given in writing, and need to be forwarded to a Review Committee by the next working day.
  4. The confirmation must not be a mere formality, but must indicate independent application of mind by the competent authority to the order passed by the authorised officer, who must also take into account changed circumstances if any, etc.

 

Insta Links

REGULATING THE BAN

 

Practice Questions

Q. Are Internet shutdowns healthy for India? Critically analyse and also comment on the recent trends associated and the laws governing it. (250 words)

 

Sources: Down to Earth, OHCHR