Can’t Drop the Ball on Internet Shutdown Reform #KeepUsOnline

Tl;dr

We wrote to the Department of Telecommunications and the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs to ensure reform of India’s internet shutdown laws remains a priority for the government. We have relied on the observations made by the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India about gaps in the Telecom Suspension Rules 2017 to urge for review of the Rules based on public consultation and economic impact assessment.

Background

On 10 January 2020, the Supreme Court delivered its judgement in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India. This case related to the constitutionality of the communication shutdown imposed in Jammu and Kashmir on 05 August 2019 and it highlighted deficiencies in India’s internet shutdown framework.  The Court noted that the Telecom Suspension Rules 2017 had several gaps which needed to be addressed by the legislature including the lack of time limitation for shutdown orders. As a temporary stop-gap measure, the Court put in place two ad-hoc procedural safeguards. First, the Court directed that all internet shutdown orders should be published. Second, the Court directed the Review Committee to periodically review internet shutdown orders every seven working days. Unfortunately, even these safeguards have not been complied with uniformly and internet shutdowns have been imposed in cities like Jabalpur without any publication of order.

The government seems to be aware of the import of the judgement in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India but no concrete steps have been taken so far for review of the Telecom Suspension Rules 2017. In response to a parliamentary question, the Minister of State for Communications stated in Rajya Sabha on 06 February 2020 that the government will review the Rules and conduct stakeholder consultation in view of the Supreme Court’s observations. To ensure the government follows up with this assurance, we have written to the Department of Telecommunications and the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs.

Recommendations for Department of Telecommunications

We first wrote to the Department of Telecommunications under the Ministry of Communications on 06 February 2020 and highlighted the massive economic losses caused by internet shutdowns in India. In particular, we urged the Department to commence a public consultation to review the Telecom Suspension Rules 2017. We also recommended that an urgent advisory be issued to all States and Union Territories to ensure that all internet shutdowns are ordered in accordance with the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India.

Noting that there was lack of any systematic record keeping by the government, we have requested the Department to maintain a repository of all internet shutdown orders and conduct an economic impact to ascertain losses caused by internet shutdowns. We suspect that the losses will be extremely high with the Cellular Operators Association of India estimating that telecom operators lose Rs. 24.5 million per hour in every circle area where there is a shutdown or throttling.

Recommendations for Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs

We also wrote to the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs on 03 April 2020 to ensure implementation of the assurance made by the Minister of State for Communications in Rajya Sabha about review of Telecom Suspension Rules 2017. As per the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961, the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs is responsible for culling out all assurances made in Parliament, monitoring the status of their fulfilment and laying an implementation before Parliament. Assurances made in Parliament are usually required to be fulfilled within 3 months. However, in this case, the Department of Telecommunications has not taken any steps towards review of the Telecom Suspension Rules 2017 including putting out a call for public consultation.

We recognize that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the functioning of government ministries has been affected but this crisis also demonstrates how the internet has become a lifeline for many. Therefore, even if there is an extension of implementation timelines, review of the Telecom Suspension Rules 2017 must remain a priority and the Parliament must be apprised of the status of implementation of the assurance made by the Ministry of Communications.

Important Documents

  1. Representation dated 06.02.2020 sent to MoC and MeitY (link)
  2. Representation dated 03.04.2020 sent to MoP and ML&J (link)

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