Standing Committee on IT highlights lack of action taken by the Government and reiterates it recommendations on internet shutdowns

In our letter to the Standing Committee on IT, we note with appreciation the recommendations, made in its 37th Action Taken report, of bringing the issue of internet shutdowns to the forefront and recommending concrete steps to address it.

28 February, 2023
6 min read

We wrote to the Standing Committee, appreciating their 37th Action Taken report.

tl;dr

The Standing Committee on Communication and Information Technology (“Standing Committee”) has published its report on ‘Suspension of telecom services/internet and its impact’. The report has been published in light of the frequent use of internet suspension across the country. In this background, the Standing Committee has made a range of recommendations including a review of the legal regime for suspension of internet services and establishing a database of internet shutdown orders. In our letter addressed to them, we note with appreciation the recommendations issued by the Standing Committee in bringing this issue to the forefront and recommending concrete steps to address it.

Introduction

In 2022 alone, a total of 1533 hours of internet shutdowns in India cost the country a total of $184.3 million (or 18.43 crores), according to research by Top10VPN.com. In sum, the country has succumbed to a loss of nearly $4.8 billion by imposing 15,813 hours of internet suspensions over three years ranging from 2019 to 2022. Internet suspensions halts the citizens from going about their ordinary course, isolating them from the world. The impact extends beyond the economic realm and affects the day-to-day lives of citizens by hindering communication as well as access to healthcare services, education, and news. With due regard to its impact on this new world, which by the day gets more dependent on the net, the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India (2020) 3 SCC 637, while mandating publication of all orders directing internet shutdowns, held that internet suspension is a drastic measure and must be considered by the government under necessary and unavoidable circumstances, after assessing the existence of less intrusive remedies. We have previously addressed representations to governments of Jammu & Kashmir, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, and Meghalaya seeking restoration of internet services, and compliance with the directions of the Supreme Court in the Anuradha Bhasin judgement.

In contrast to the directives issued in the Anuradha Bhasin judgement, the measure of shutdowns gets invoked almost in a routine manner rather than sparingly. The beginning of 2023, too, witnessed suspensions in Bihar, Jharkhand and Arunachal Pradesh.

Background

To address the real and pressing issue of frequent internet shutdowns, which are imposed in an ad-hoc manner, the Standing Committee, on December 01, 2021, released its report on ‘Suspension of telecom services/internet and its impact’ (“December 2021 Report”). Based on an evaluation of the existing legal regime as well as submissions made by various authorities, the Standing Committee made recommendations to the Department of Telecom (“DoT”) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (“MHA”) for a wide range of issues including regulatory overhaul, oversight mechanisms, transparency, and the need for consultations with stakeholders. Pursuant to the release of the December 2021 report, we wrote to the MHA and the DOT, seeking implementation of the recommendations made in the report, including but not limited to the constitution of review committees in all states to ensure adequate checks and balances as well as mechanism for regular consultation.

The Standing Committee, in its December 2021 Report, also considered and referred to submissions made by us to the Standing Committee on August 04, 2020, which brought to the fore the ill-effects of internet shutdowns. In this background, based on the actions taken by the DoT and the MHA pursuant to the recommendations in the December 2021 report, the Standing Committee tabled a new report titled 'Suspension of Telecom Services and Internet and its impact' (“Action Taken report”) on February 09, 2023, analysing and expressing disappointment with the earlier mentioned departments/ministries for not implementing most of its former recommendations. The Committee, with these recommendations, expressed concerns over the offhand use of internet shutdown to establish law and order. It aptly noted that resort to shutdowns ought to be diminished. We extended our support to these meaningful recommendations by the Standing Committee's observations in our letter.

Recommendations

Upon evaluating the existing legal regime as well as submissions made by authorities in response to questions, 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.

Issues identified in the December 2021 and Action taken report

Recommendations as suggested in the December 2021 report

Recommendations as suggested in the Action taken report

Maintenance of Official Data on Internet Shutdown 

The DoT and the MHA must implement a centralised database of all internet shutdowns in the country. This database must include certain details about the shutdown including the duration, the reason for the shutdown and the reason the shutdown was ordered.

The DoT and MHA should establish a mechanism at the earliest to maintain a centralised database of all internet shutdown orders in the country. Such a verifiable mechanism would provide the DoT/MHA with a means to ascertain whether internet shutdowns have been clamped strictly as per the Suspension Rules or the order given by the Supreme Court.

Composition, Powers and functions of Review Committees to review the decision on Telecom Suspension 

The composition of the Review Committee must be made more diverse by including more non-official Members such as retired Judges, Members of the public, etc The DoT may also explore the option of including local MPs and MLAs in the review committee. The DoT and the MHA should ensure that authentic data on the decisions taken by the Review Committee is maintained.

The composition of the Review Committees should be expanded so as to include non-official Members, such as retired Judges, eminent citizens, heads of Public Organizations, TSP, etc. The DoT should also explore the possibility of including local MP and MLA in the Review Committee, as they are aware of the ground reality and take necessary steps so that authentic data on the decisions taken by Review Committee are maintained. 

Constitution of Review Committees in all States 

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 maintain records for the same.

Necessary action to be taken to ensure that Review Committees are constituted in all the States in a time-bound manner and data regarding the constitution of Review Committees by all States/UTs are obtained and record maintained by the DoT with periodic monitoring.

Safeguards against misuse of Internet Shutdown

The DoT and MHA must issue a uniform set of SOP and guidelines for the issuing of orders for suspension of telecom services. These guidelines must include the safeguards laid down by the Supreme Court in the Anuradha Bhasin judgement.

The Dot to take proactive measures in consultation with MHA and issue a uniform set of SOP and guidelines to be followed by all States/UTs with that such laying will help States/UTs to avoid internet shutdowns in unwarranted situations. It will also help in ensuring transparency with regard to invoking these Rules.

Effectiveness of Suspension of Telecom Services/Internet Shutdown 

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. Given the indispensable nature of the internet for modern India, Internet shutdowns must be used as a measure of last resort.

A thorough study is to be  commissioned by the Government of India to assess the impact of the internet shutdown on the economy and also find out its effectiveness in dealing with public emergencies and public safety. 

Need for Consultation with Stakeholders 

The DoT must lay down a mechanism for regular consultation with multiple stakeholders such as telecom service providers, elected representatives, people’s organisations, commercial/industry bodies, civil society, etc. so as to formulate a holistic policy relating to internet shutdown

The DoT to lay down a mechanism through which regular consultation can be held with multiple stakeholders viz. TSPs, elected representatives, people’s organisations, commercial/industry bodies, civil society, etc. so as to formulate a holistic policy relating to the internet shutdown.

Principle of Proportionality and Procedure for Lifting of Internet Shutdown 

The DoT, in coordination with the MHA and the Ministry of Legal Affairs, must lay down a clear principle of proportionality as well as the procedure for lifting internet shutdowns

The DoT in coordination with the MHA should lay down a clear cut principle of proportionality and procedure for lifting of the shutdown.


At the outset, we commend the Standing Committee on the 37th Action Taken Report tabled on February 09, 2023. The Action Taken Report has highlighted the issue of frequent internet shutdowns in India and the need for a clear principle of proportionality and procedure for lifting such shutdowns. We appreciate your efforts in bringing this issue to the forefront and recommending concrete steps to address it. They represent a genuine pathway towards a progressive regime for regulating internet shutdowns that factors in the importance of the internet for life in 21st-century India. We now urge the DoT and the MHA to act on these recommendations so that the arbitrary and excessive resort to internet shutdowns can be eroded!

Important Documents

  1. Standing Committee 37th Action taken report (link)
  2. IFF’s letter to the Standing Committee on the 37th Action taken report (link)
  3. Standing Committee - December 2021 Report (link)
  4. IFF’s letter to MHA dated December 10, 2021 (link)IFF’s letter to DoT dated December 16, 2021 (link)

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