The Standing Committee on Communication and Information Technology (‘Standing Committee’) released its report on ‘Suspension of telecom services/internet and its impact (‘Report’) on December 1, 2021 highlighting several important recommendations taking into account the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v Union of India, and representations made by various stakeholders (including IFF) working on the issue of internet shutdowns. Previously, we summarised the recommendations in the Report. We have now written to the Ministry of Home Affairs (‘MHA’) and the Department of Telecommunications (‘DoT’) urging them to implement the most relevant recommendations at the earliest.
In 2021, Central and State Governments suspended internet services for over 1108 hours. The figure for 2020 was 8927 hours which cost the country US$ 2.8 Billion (Rs. 20,937 crore). The impact extends beyond the economic realm and affects the day-to-day lives of citizens by hindering communication, access to healthcare services, education and news.
In an era where the world is more reliant on the internet than ever, Internet shutdowns have been on a rise in India. As an example, the internet was suspended in several districts of Rajasthan in September and October to prevent cheating and facilitate the conduct of state-level examinations. The Haryana Government had also suspended the internet to clamp down on democratic protests. Previously, in Jammu & Kashmir and Meghalaya, the internet was suspended without publishing any suspension orders.
In order to address the real and pressing issue of frequent internet shutdowns, which are imposed in an ad-hoc manner, on 1st December 2021, the Standing Committee on Communication and Information Technology (‘Standing Committee’) released its report on ‘Suspension of telecom services/internet and its impact (‘Report’) (enclosed). Based on an evaluation of the existing legal regime as well as submissions made by various authorities, the Standing Committee specified certain recommendations for a wide range of issues including regulatory overhaul, oversight mechanisms, transparency, and the need for consultations with stakeholders.
IFF’s representation of 2020
The Standing Committee, in its Report, has also considered and referred to submissions made by us on 4th August, 2020 highlighting the ill effects of internet shutdowns. In our submissions, we questioned whether internet shutdowns lead to better law and order outcomes, and highlighted that internet shutdowns were found by researchers to be ineffective in pacifying protests. We also pointed out how internet shutdowns may have unintended consequences of incentivising violent forms of collective actions which require less communication.
IFF’s representation to the MHA and DoT
- Amendment: In coordination with the Ministry of Home Affairs (‘MHA’) and the Ministry of Law and Justice, the Department of Telecommunications (‘DoT’) must review and amend the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 (‘Rules”) considering of relevant Supreme Court judgements, keeping in mind the technological developments and views of all state governments.
- Database: The DoT and the MHA must develop a centralised database of all internet shutdowns in the country. This database must include details such as the duration and the reason for which internet shutdown was ordered, and must also provide the underlying order which directed the suspension of the internet. This is essential to verify third-party claims relating to the scope and extent of internet suspensions in India, and also to ensure transparency in what is presently a highly opaque practice.
- Study for impact: A thorough study must be commissioned by the Union Government to assess the impact of internet shutdowns on the Indian economy as well their effectiveness in dealing with public emergencies. India is referred to as the ‘Internet Shutdown Capital of the World’. We must understand the problem, in order to be able to combat it effectively.
- Review Committees: Review Committees must be constituted in all states to ensure adequate checks and balances. The DoT must monitor the functioning of the Review Committees and ensure (along with the MHA) that authentic data on the decisions taken by the Review Committee is maintained. The composition of the Review Committee must also be made more diverse by including more non-official Members such as retired Judges, members of the public, etc.
We have filed several RTIs before the Central Government and various State Governments, but have received absolutely no information about the constitution of any Review Committees at the State or Central level. Review Committees perform a necessary administrative function of furthering public accountability towards persons affected by internet suspensions.
- SOP and guidelines: The DoT and MHA must issue uniform guidelines for the issuance of telecom suspension orders. These guidelines must include the safeguards laid down by the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin and lay down a clear principle of proportionality as well as the procedure for lifting internet shutdowns. Given the indispensable nature of the internet for modern India, internet shutdowns must be used as a measure of last resort. A proper mechanism for evaluating the appropriateness of a shutdown must be implemented. In order to remove ambiguity, defined parameters on what constitutes a public emergency/safety must be specified. The DoT must also undertake a study of the regulatory framework adopted by other countries with respect to internet shutdowns.
- Consultation: The DoT must lay down a mechanism for regular consultation with multiple stakeholders such as telecom service providers, elected representatives, peoples organizations, commercial/industry bodies, civil society, etc. so as to formulate a holistic policy relating to internet shutdowns.
- Alternative measures: The DoT must examine the TRAI’s recommendation to develop a policy to selectively ban certain services, instead of banning the entirety of internet services. This will be more in line with the requirement of proportional intervention. Until such a policy is developed, efforts must be made to ensure interrupted services through state broadband networks which can be easily monitored.
The recommendations made by the Standing Committee in its report are laudable, but for the report to be effective in light of the ever so frequent internet shutdowns, expedient implementation is a must. Through our representation, we have urged the MHA and the DOT to consider the above-mentioned recommendations at the earliest.
While these recommendations are only persuasive, and they are treated as considered advice given by the Standing Committees (Rule 331N of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha), the concerned ministry is mandated to reply within three months stating the action taken on the recommendations (Rule 9.1 of the Sectional Manual of Office Procedure). Previously, the recommendations of the Committee on Communications and Information Technology on Information Technology (Amendment) Bill, 2006 have been accepted by the Union Government . We hope the Union Government also accepts the recommendations on the law related to internet shutdowns.
- Blogpost titled ‘Concerned with frequent internet suspensions, Parliamentary Committee recommends an overhaul’ (link)
- Representation to the MHA dated 10.12.2021 (link)
- Representation to the DoT dated 16.12.2021 (link)