The Home Department of the Haryana Government on July 31, 2023 ordered the suspension of mobile internet services, SMS and dongle services in certain districts in the State of Haryana. Under applicable Indian law, it is mandatory for such internet shutdown orders to undergo review by a committee of high-level government officials, ensuring that the orders are proportional, legal, and necessary. We have written to the Chief Secretary of Haryana, who is the Chairperson of the Haryana Review Committee, requesting an urgent assessment of the suspension orders issued.
Why were they issued?
The internet suspension orders were issued in accordance with Order No. 2/1/2023-1H (C), dated July 31, 2023 (“July 31 Orders”) in the districts of Nuh, Faridabad, Palwal and, sub-divisions Sohna, Manesar and Pataudi of Gurugram district for three days, i.e., till 11:59 PM, August 2, 2023. These were issued in response to incidents of communal violence that erupted in parts of Haryana on Monday. The orders state that there was “a likelihood of causing communal tension, annoyance, obstruction and injury to persons, danger to human life and public property, disturbance of public peace and tranquillity,” which led to the decision to impose restrictions. The justification for these orders includes the spreading of misinformation and rumours through various social media platforms on mobile phones and SMS, that might be leveraged by agitators and demonstrators who can “cause serious loss of life and damage to public and private properties”.
Why should you care?
As we noted in our letter to the Chief Secretary of Haryana, there are multi-pronged concerns that emanate from imposing internet and communications blackouts. First, as the Supreme Court of India held in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, the right to freedom of speech and expression, and to carry on one’s profession, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution, extends to the medium of the Internet. Imposing internet shutdowns impact citizens’ ability to access the internet, and have an extended impact on their rights to access educational resources and information, conduct trade and commerce, and receive healthcare, among others.
Second, there are huge economic costs associated with the imposition of internet blockades. For instance, in 2021, the Union and State governments in India suspended internet services for over 1108 hours. The figure for the year 2020 was 8927 hours, reportedly costing the country US$ 2.8 billion (Rs. 20,937 crores). Moreover, in 2022 alone, India imposed internet shutdowns at least 84 times, far higher than any other country, thus claiming the title of the internet shutdown capital of the world for the fifth-consecutive year, as per Access Now report.
Third, apart from the legal and economic concerns, there are psychological, social, and journalistic harms caused by such suspensions that far outweigh any speculative benefits since residents of the affected areas are unable to communicate, carry on with their businesses, trades or professions, continue their education or verify the news that they receive. These suspensions have a disproportionate impact on sectors and professions that rely heavily on access to the internet, such as e-commerce, freelancers, and press and media, among others.
Our Concerns with the July 31 Orders
The applicable law permits internet suspensions only on the occurrence of a public emergency, or in the interest of public safety. As previously mentioned, the July 31 Orders have been issued to curb the spread of misinformation or rumours through various social media platforms and SMS. However, no particulars have been mentioned that suggest a threat to public safety or in the nature of public emergency. In addition, the usage of terms like ‘likelihood of’ and ‘potential disruption of’ in the orders indicates that the internet shutdown is preventive rather than reactive in nature; an aspect which is witnessing an upward trend.
Further, no specific references have been made to instances of misinformation and/or allegedly false rumours. In fact, communication and news reporting services over the medium of the internet are crucial in combating misinformation and false rumours, since such misinformation and rumours may nevertheless spread through offline means, but the primary exercise of fact-checking and receiving up-to-date verified information is carried out by means of the internet, including via social media platforms.
Apart from the above, research on internet shutdowns empirically suggests that they are ineffective in pacifying protests and often have unintended consequences of incentivizing violent forms of collective action which require less communication and coordination.
IFF wrote to the Chief Secretary of Haryana
As per the Telecom Suspension Rules, 2017, in cases of an internet blockade, the suspension order must be forwarded to a review committee no later than the next working day, for the committee to assess the legality and proportionality of the order issued and record its findings. While the law provides the review committee to sit every five days to make its assessment, our concern is that since the July 31 Orders have been issued for a period of three days, if the committee convenes after such time, the operation of the July 31 Orders would have lapsed and any findings by the review committee would become academic in nature.
Accordingly, we have requested the Chief Secretary of Haryana, who chairs the Haryana Review Committee, to promptly convene a meeting to assess the legality of the July 31 Orders. We also urged the committee to take stock of the law and order situation in impacted districts, and review whether the internet suspension instituted for three days is necessary. Furthermore, to promote transparency and uphold the spirit of the law, as iterated in the Supreme Court’s judgement in Anuradha Bhasin, we have kindly requested the Chief Secretary to make the minutes of this meeting publicly available.
In our letter, we highlighted that the July 31 Orders were uploaded on the website of the Ministry of Home and Administration of Justice, under the Haryana Government in a timely manner, in accordance with the Anuradha Bhasin judgement. This move demonstrates a step towards transparency and accountability by the Haryana Government, something we truly appreciate!
We hope that the Haryana Government will give due consideration to our concerns, and exercise reasonable restraint in imposing internet and communications blackouts in the future. We will keep you updated on the responses by the Haryana Government!
This post has been authored by IFF Litigation Intern Raghu Gagneja, and reviewed by Associate Litigation Counsel Radhika Roy.
- Copy of IFF’s Representation dated August 2, 2023 to the Chief Secretary of Haryana [Link]
- Internet Shutdown Order for District of Nuh dated July 31, 2023. [Link]
- Internet Shutdown Order for District of Faridabad dated July 31, 2023. [Link]
- Internet Shutdown Order for District of Palwal and Sub-divisions Sohna, Pataudi and Manesar of District of Gurugram dated July 31, 2023. [Link]