IFF is alarmed that State Governments have routinely employed internet shutdowns as a response to recent instances of communal clashes and violence, including by impermissible means such as under Section 144 of the CrPC. Such internet shutdowns are reportedly being accompanied by targeted and illegal censorship by law enforcement and police authorities, who do not have the power to order the takedown of online content. From 31.03.2023 to 02.04.2023, the governments of West Bengal and Bihar have imposed internet shutdowns, following incidents of communal violence.
The Supreme Court of India, in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, held that the right to free speech and the freedom to carry out one’s trade or profession via the medium of the internet is a fundamental right, and must be accorded the protection of the Constitution.
There is no evidence to suggest that internet shutdowns help in preventing misinformation or instances of violence, scholars have argued that internet shutdowns are ineffective in quelling unrest and misinformation. Further, the inability to access internet services deprives citizens of the most effective tools for fighting misinformation. The irreparable consequences of internet shutdowns on both the Indian economy and the daily lives of citizens cannot be overstated. It is estimated that in 2022, the internet was unavailable for 1533 hours resulting in an economic loss of $184.3 million. From 2019 to 2022, the internet was unavailable for more than 15,000 hours in India, resulting in an economic loss of almost $5.8 billion.
IFF is deeply perturbed by the non-compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines. To safeguard the fundamental rights of citizens and promote transparency, IFF calls on the authorities responsible for issuing internet suspension orders to ensure compliance with the applicable law i.e., the Telegraph Act of 1885, the Telecom Suspension Rules of 2017, and the Anuradha Bhasin directions. We will send representations to the Chief Secretaries and Home departments of Bihar and West Bengal, urging them to adhere to the letter and spirit of the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines and the applicable laws when issuing internet suspension orders.
According to media reports, the following are the incidents of internet shutdowns in response to recent incidents of communal violence. Since the original orders have not been published on government websites, the information below is based on orders published by media reports. Further, reports suggest that there are internet shutdowns in the Rohtas district of Bihar, though an internet suspension order has not been made available.