Researcher Jade Lyngdoh from Shillong writes to the Chief Secretary of Meghalaya about the ongoing internet shutdown #KeepItOn

tl;dr

On November 22, 2022, our community informed us that an internet shutdown has been ordered in several districts of the state of Meghalaya for 48 hours on November 22 and November 23, 2022. Our community also informed us that the internet suspension was in response to an incident of violence. Jade Lyngdoh, a student of National Law University, Jodhpur and a researcher of law and technology, and a resident of Shillong, decided to write to the Chief Secretary of Meghalaya to urge them to convene a meeting of the Review Committee of Meghalaya urgently and consider whether the internet suspension may be lifted earlier than 48 hours. IFF provided support to Mr. Lyngdoh in the drafting of the representation.

The Suspension Order did not contain clear reasons

The Government of Meghalaya, through its Secretary, Home (Police), issued an internet suspension order on November 22, 2022, which was to begin the same day, for 48 hours (“Suspension Order”). The Suspension Order was valid in seven districts of Meghalaya (out of 12), including East Khasi Hills, where Shillong is.

The Suspension Order stated that an “untoward incident” had taken place, which could “disturb public peace and tranquillity, and cause a threat to public safety in [...], which may likely breakdown [sic] order”. The Suspension Order also stated that messaging and social media platforms, like Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube could be used for transmission of information, and that this could potentially break down law and order. On these grounds, the Suspension Order invoked the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules, 2017 (“Suspension Rules”) and the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 to completely suspend all mobile internet services.

Copy of the Suspension Order as shared by our community on Twitter
Copy of the Suspension Order as shared by our community on Twitter

Gaps in this completely unreasoned order were filled in by our community, which informed us of unfortunate incidents of violence that may have taken place around the same time, but were not alluded to in the Suspension Order itself. The Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India (2020) 3 SCC 637 has directed that internet suspension orders must record its reasons, to enable affected persons to challenge them.

Jade Lyngdoh decided to write to the Chief Secretary, Meghalaya

The Suspension Rules require the review committee to meet within five days and record their findings on whether the Suspension Order was issued in accordance with law. Jade Lyngdoh, a student of National Law University, Jodhpur, a researcher of law and technology, and a resident of Shillong, decided to write to the Chief Secretary of Meghalaya to urge them to convene a meeting of the Review Committee of Meghalaya urgently and consider whether the internet suspension may be lifted earlier than 48 hours.

In his letter, Mr. Lyngdoh noted that in 2021, the governments in India, Central and State, have suspended internet services for over 1108 hours. The figure for 2020 was 8927 hours reportedly costing the country US$ 2.8 Billion (Rs. 20,937 crore). Apart from the legal concerns, the economic, psychological, social, and journalistic harm caused by such suspensions outweighs any speculative benefits as, amongst other things, residents of the affected areas are unable to communicate, carry on with their businesses, trades or professions, continue their education or verify news that they receive. Sectors such as tourism, IT, e-commerce, freelancers, and press and news media suffer the hardest hit. Suspending mobile-internet, while allowing fixed-line internet to function, disproportionately affects those underprivileged by the digital divide.

Mr. Lyngdoh further noted that the Supreme Court of India held in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India (2020) 3 SCC 637, that the right to freedom of speech and expression, and to carry on one’s profession, guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution of India extends to the medium of the internet. The Suspension Rules require that internet suspension orders must include reasons for such suspension. The Suspension Order merely refers to a vague reference of a law and order situation in the state, and states that “messaging systems like WhatsApp and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, etc. are likely to be used for transmission of information through pictures, videos, and text, having the potential to cause serious breakdown of law and order”. He also stated that the Suspension Rules mandate that a copy of the suspension order must be sent latest by the next working day to a review committee, which must meet within five working days.

Mr. Lyngdoh urged the Review Committee to meet urgently

Accordingly, Mr. Lyngdoh requested the Chief Secretary of Meghalaya that the Meghalaya Review Committee must immediately convene a meeting, in order for it to record its findings on the legality of the November 22 Order.

In the interest of transparency and the spirit of the law, as well as the Supreme Court’s judement in Anuradha Bhasin, Mr. Lyngdoh also request that the review committee ensure that the minutes of this meeting be published in public domain.

We hope that the Government of Meghalaya will exercise restraint in issuing suspension orders, without transparently and openly disclosing the reasons for them. We also hope that the Government of Meghalaya will provide due consideration to Mr. Lyngdoh’s requests. We will keep you updated on any responses by the Meghalaya government.

We also thank Mr. Lyngdoh for taking up this important issue, and further accountability and transparency in government action that can affect the fundamental rights of millions of Indians.

Important Documents

  1. Copy of the Suspension Order (link)
  2. Copy of Mr. Lyngdoh’s Representation dated November 23, 2022 to the Chief Secretary of Meghalaya (link)