The Commissioner (Home) of Manipur ordered successive internet shutdowns in the entire State of Manipur for five days. The internet shutdown orders cited the reasons to “thwart the design and activities of anti-national and anti-social elements… by stopping the spread of disinformation and false rumours” and the likelihood of “serious disturbances to the entire peaceful co-existance of the communities and maintenance of public order”. Applicable Indian law requires that these orders must be reviewed by a committee of high-level government officials, to ensure that they are proportionate, lawful and necessary. We have written to the Chairperson of the Review Committee, i.e., the Chief Secretary of Manipur, to review the order and consider on a day-to-day basis whether the internet suspension needs to continue.
Why should you care?
Internet shutdowns have several social and psychological harms. For instance, people are unable to connect with their loved ones, critical healthcare services become inaccessible, police accountability is compromised, citizen journalism - which is crucial for documenting current events - ceases to exist, and the spread of misinformation and or false information is left unchecked. Limiting access to information in the context of ongoing violence can even endanger people’s lives.
Given the impact of internet shutdowns on fundamental rights, it is essential that proper oversight is exercised over orders for internet shutdowns. The Review Committee established under the Telecom Suspension Rules is the only mechanism for oversight of internet shutdown orders, and if the Review Committee does not diligently oversee and review orders for internet suspension, there is a higher risk that the power to shut down the internet will be misused by governments, as a result of going completely unchecked.
As notified to us by members of our community, the State of Manipur had issued a state-wide internet shutdown. Initially, mobile data services were suspended for a period of 5 days beginning on May 3, 2023, pursuant to Order No. H-3607/4/2022-HD-HD dated May 3, 2023 (“May 3 Order”). Subsequently on May 4, 2023 by order No. H-3607/4/2022-HD-HD (“May 4 Order”), extended the internet suspension to broadband services as well by a period of five days.
This closely follows another recent incident of an internet shutdown in two districts of Manipur order on April 27, 2023 (“April 27 Order”). The April 27 Order was also issued for a duration of five days.
The May 3 Order had been issued in relation to incidents of violence reported amid protests by tribal groups. However, the reason cited in the May 3 Order for the internet suspension is that it intends to “thwart the design and activities of anti-national and anti-social elements… by stopping the spread of disinformation and false rumours, through various social media platform such as Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. on mobile phone” (emphasis reproduced). To achieve this objective, the Manipur government had issued a suspension order for the next five days. This was the same reasoning that was provided in the April 27 Order. In fact, the May 3 Order is nearly identical to the April 27 Order.
The May 4 Order suspended broadband services citing the May 3 Order and the likelihood of “serious disturbances to the entire peaceful co-existance of the communities and maintenance of public order”. This means that between April 27, 2023, and May 7, 2023, the State of Manipur will see back-to-back internet shutdowns for over 10 days!
IFF Wrote to the Chief Secretary
According to the Telecom Suspension Rules, 2017, the suspension order must be forwarded to the Review Committee of the State by the next working day, and the Review Committee must sit within five days to deliberate on the legality of the order and record their findings.
We wrote to the Chief Secretary of Manipur urging greater scrutiny of shutdown orders
Concerned by the length and breadth of the internet suspension order, we wrote a letter to the Chief Secretary of the Government of Manipur on May 5, 2023, in his capacity as the Chairperson of the Review Committee constituted by the Government of Manipur. We had written to the Chief Secretary, Manipur when the April 27 Order was in effect, as well. However, we have not yet received a response to that letter.
In our letter to the Chief Secretary Manipur, we raised our concerns regarding the length of the internet suspension order, and the legal, economic and social harms of internet suspensions. We highlighted that communication and news reporting services over the medium of the internet are crucial in combating disinformation and false rumours, since such disinformation may spread equally well through offline means, but the primary exercise for fact-checking and receiving up-to-date verified information is carried out by means of the internet, including on social media platforms.
Further, internet shutdowns are an ineffective remedy for the objectives stated in the May 3 Order. Researchers, such as Jan Rydzak and Nishant Joshi, have empirically studied internet shutdowns, and found 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.
Since the internet suspension order has been issued for five days, if the Review Committee meets after such time, the operation of the order would have lapsed and any findings by the Review Committee will become academic in nature. And cumulatively, many residents of Manipur will have been without internet services for a total of 11 days.
Accordingly, we urged the Chairperson to ensure that the Review Committee convenes as soon as possible and records its findings on the legality of the May 3 Order and May 4 Order with reasons, as well as the April 27 Order. We also urged the Chief Secretary to review the May 3 Order and May 4 Order and record its findings thereon. In the interest of transparency and the spirit of the law, as well as the Supreme Court’s judgment in Anuradha Bhasin, we also requested that the Review Committee ensure that the minutes of this meeting be published in the public domain.
We will continue to fight against internet shutdowns wherever they occur in India.
- Letter dated May 5, 2023, addressed to the Chief Secretary, Government of Manipur (link)
- IFF Statement dated May 5, 2023 on the internet shutdowns in Manipur (link)
- Internet Shutdown Order dated May 3, 2023 (link)
- Internet Shutdown Order dated May 4, 2023 (link)
- Previous blogpost dated April 28, titled “Manipur has ordered an internet shutdown for five days. IFF wrote to its Chief Secretary urging scrutiny of orders #KeepItOn” (link)