Life in today’s age is completely dependent on the Internet. Life Without this essential tool would probably come to a pause. Internet and its users have evolved so much over the years that the internet has now become a part of our daily routine, it revolves around it, our desires and goals are shaped by depending upon it. The internet has been so useful for people because it makes our lives easy and simple. The Internet provides us so many things for example knowledge, social-economic development. Internet is an ocean of knowledge, information and helps to shape our lifestyle and business. It unfolds so many opportunities for creativity, innovations as well. It encourages students to gain knowledge from any corner of the world, it helps the industries the run by depending on its availability, also gives a platform for various researchers and easy and quick communication in the world. Over the years the internet has opened so many scopes, opportunities for the people in India, the use in the country has helped people in a lot of ways. In fact, now India has the 2nd highest no. of internet users after China & faces shifting towards digital India, but India also stands with the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world. Internet shutdown is very prevalent nowadays across all over the world in the name of maintains of law and orders but what more terrible is that world largest democracy India stand at 1st place.
What is an internet shutdown?
Internet shutdown is also known as blackouts or kill switches, it occurs when an entity, like a non-state actor or government, deliberately meddles access to the internet or certain apps, to control the flow of data in a region or country. An international NGO AccessNow, which focuses on digital rights, defines it as “an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.”
Law regulating right to internet and its shutdown
Maker of the Indian constitution makes the constitution flexible to the will of the people. In the case of Anuradha Bhasin v Union of India[i], the supreme court has declared the right to the internet as a part of fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the constitution. And in the case of Faheema Shirin R.K v State of Kerala[ii], the Kerala high court has declared the right to the internet as an integral part of the right to education under Art. 21A and the right to privacy under Art. 21.
The right to information, Free speech, and freedom of the press are important aspects of freedom of speech and expression under Art. 19(1)(a). These aspects are conjoined with one’s right to uninterrupted access to the internet. The Internet has become the major source of getting and sharing information and it helps the way media plays a role in a democracy. With the improvement in technology and globalization of the economy, many businesses are run through the internet. Trade and commerce are also now internet-based called e-commerce. There are other jobs too that require people to be online like blogging and YouTubing. That is why access to the internet is cardinal freedom for the exercise of a right under Article 19(1)(g).
However, these rights are not absolute and subject to morality, security, public peace, and other exemptions under Article 19(2). Also, the magistrate is authorized to suppress freedom of speech and expression under Section 144 of CrPC in case of breach of public peace. The court has condemned repetitive exercise of this power by the magistrate and held that such orders will now be examined by high courts and the doctrine of proportionality must be used before upholding such orders. In Modern Dental College & Research Centre v. State of M.P.[iii], four essentials of proportionality were marked as follows-
- There must be a reasonable goal.
- There must be a proper means of furthering this goal
- There must not be an equally effective option
- The measure must not have an out-of-proportion impact on the right holder.
When the above-mentioned essentials are met, the restriction can be imposed. However, now this all subject to the temporary suspension of telecom services rules, 2017 but previously it comes under Section 144 of CrPC.
There are some laws that govern the internet shutdown in India since the freedom of internet access is not unrestricted. Earlier, the Indian telegraph act 1885, which gave power to British officials to control Indian telephone lines, gave the power of internet censorship to the government of India. Section 69A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act of 2008 provides power to the government to block specific websites and pages in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India and the security of the State. Besides this, section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) provided for the authority of the magistrate to issue directions to block the internet in specific areas for maintaining public order. This section has been used and abused again and again, especially in Jammu & Kashmir. That is because this section provides slack and broader powers to the government to close the internet.
Under the Indian Telegraph Act 1885, the government has notified Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules,2017; which currently govern the internet shutdowns in India. These rules give the procedure and law out for the lockdown or the suspension of internet services. Directions given under these rules supersede orders given under section 144 CrPC. The grounds which are provided under this are “public safety” and “public emergency”. And both these words are however not defined in the parent Act or the rules. The committee made for reviewing such orders involves executives and there is no unbiased body for this purpose. There is no provision for the procedure for lifting of the shutdown under these laws.
The consequence of internet curfew
The question that emerges is whether the internet shutdown an option to protect tranquility or is that only a myth. The shutdowns in Kashmir after the removal of article 370 were unexplained. The shutdowns were aimed to stop the violence that was apprehended because of the previous history of the state. Education was completely disrupted in Jammu & Kashmir due to the enforcement of Section 144 of Cr.P.C. for an extended period. While the situation was already poor, the internet heckling and unavailability of online education portals made the situation much more extreme.
There is not much proof to show the success of internet shutdowns in establishing law and order and maintaining peace. The Internet can be used as a medium of containment during a period of unrest. For instance, in September 2016, when riots broke out in Bangalore city, the best way to get real-time information about rerouted traffic, burning buses, and violent mobs were via social media and Bangalore City Police active and effective use both Facebook and Twitter, they posted updates and information on roadblocks and gave out emergency numbers for hospitals and police stations. In the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, the internet has become the boat that sails one from crisis to normal. The cashless transactions, education, administrative activities, internships, online delivery of necessities, jobs, as well as e-filing of cases in courts have saved many throughout this time. Awareness is spread via the internet and health institutions require the internet for constant services. Living without the internet becomes unthinkable in this pandemic.
There is a large socio-economic impact of internet shutdowns. During the citizenship (amendment) act, there is widespread protest across India and mostly in northern India, 24 districts of Uttar Pradesh have seen internet curfew. In UP and NCR, there is a very large consumer base for online service providers. From online food and grocery suppliers to cab services, every online service was paused throughout this internet lockdown period. The business of Uber Eats, Swiggy, Zomato, as well as of their associate restaurants was badly affected. Ola, Grofer, and other lesser-known online services also witnessed a decline. There must be an impact on the lives of people availing of these services besides the loss of business.
In a democracy, every individual has an unquestionable right to discuss everyday events including the burning topics of the day. The passing of a blanket order restricting access to internet services to a free citizen likens him to that of a criminal. Besides, the frequent suspension of internet services in India goes against the Digital India ambition of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The internet is not only used to voice opinions against the democratic government but also facilitates fairer elections by the medium of electronic voting. A key feature of democracy i.e. active participation of citizens is possible today through the internet. Most of the internet shutdowns are deliberated to suppress public voice under the mask of public peace. The bottom line is that the courts or any other body must regulate internet shutdowns and it should be done comprehensively. There must be a close nexus linking the lockdown and the object sought. The period of lockdown should not be uncertain but must be specified. Internet shutdown should be the last option and all other options to maintain peace must be exhausted first.
[i] Anuradha Bhasin v Union of India, 2019 SCC Online SC 1725
[ii] Faheema Shirin R.K vs State of Kerala & others (2019), WP(C).No.19716 OF 2019(L)
[iii] Modern Dental College & Research Centre v. State of M.P., (2016) 7 SCC 353
KIIT School of Law