The Recently Notified Rules on the Suspension of Telecom Services Legitimise Internet Shutdowns and Facilitate Voice Call Bans

06 October 2017
According to the Software Freedom Law Centre, India witnessed 31 instances of internet shutdowns—more than any other country in the world—in 2016. These cost the Indian economy around Rs 6,000 crore. This year, with three months still remaining, the SFLC notes, 55 shutdowns have already been reported.
Yawar Nazir/Getty Images
According to the Software Freedom Law Centre, India witnessed 31 instances of internet shutdowns—more than any other country in the world—in 2016. These cost the Indian economy around Rs 6,000 crore. This year, with three months still remaining, the SFLC notes, 55 shutdowns have already been reported.
Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

Last year, India witnessed more internet shutdowns—where the central or state governments temporarily suspend internet access in a particular region citing law and order problems—than any other country in the world. According to the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), a legal services organisation that is involved in a global campaign against internet shutdowns, 31 such instances were reported in 2016. These cost the Indian economy around Rs 6,000 crore. This year, with three months still remaining, 55 shutdowns have already been reported. The frequency of shutdowns has become alarming—on 25 September, internet services resumed in the state of Darjeeling after over three months; the same day, services also resumed in Tripura after a four-day suspension. In Bihar’s Nawada district, an internet blackout began on 28 September.

The legal regime governing internet shutdowns has seen a curious evolution. Governments initially justified shutdowns on the back of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC)—an amorphous legal provision that empowers a district magistrate with wide discretion to pass orders as she deems necessary for public safety. In 2015, the Gujarat High Court, in what is the only court ruling on shutdowns till date, upheld the use of Section 144 to impose internet shutdowns. The Supreme Court summarily dismissed the appeal against the ruling—the bench only suggested that a shutdown “becomes very necessary sometimes for law and order,” with no further comment.

The effective validation of the sweeping exercise of power under Section 144 is aggravated by the secrecy surrounding the issuance of these orders. For instance, in the case of a six-month long mobile internet ban in Kashmir following the death of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, a right to information application revealed that no state authority knew who imposed the ban. Similarly, an RTI application seeking information about the Darjeeling internet shutdown was declined, because the order authorising such indefinite shutdown was deemed “exempted from disclosure.”

Nakul Nayak is a lawyer based out of New Delhi.

Keywords: Internet telecom Internet freedom internet shutdown ministry of communications telecom regulatory authority of india
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