Epidemic Of Internet Shutdowns: Crippling The Nation



The Internet has attained the status of basic necessity and transformed the lives of people in this age of technological advancement. It has become a vital force when it comes to today's protests and rights movements. The Arab Spring, Sunflower Revolution, Washington's Women’s March, and #Metoo campaign are a case in point. Social movements always use the technology of their day to the maximum because social movements are all about communicating with people. In simplifying and fastening communication, the internet has played a role in facilitating people to mobilize, voice their concerns and bring about a political change.


Is The Internet A Right Or A Privilege?

Universal Rights are inherent to all human beings regardless of their race, gender or nationality and they can't be lessened or revoked. Rights are the most basic freedoms humans need to lead meaningful lives like the right to move freely, right to own property etc. The same rights often serve as a foundation for civil rights which are backed by law.

Privileges, on the other hand, are special freedoms and advantages only given to a limited amount of people.

The Internet is traditionally understood as a privilege however as the web has become integrated to human life, more and more people began to think it as a right. Four in five adults regard internet access as their fundamental right, according to a new global poll of 2010 conducted across 26 countries for BBC world service.[1] One of the famous proponents of this idea is Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg who in 2013 announced his campaign to get every person on the planet online.[2]He then launched internet.org, along with a 10-page document entitled Connectivity is a Human Right that outlines his vision for the future[3].

In 2016, the United Nations declared that ‘online freedom' is a human right and the one that must be protected and condemned any efforts to hinder people from getting online.[4]


Internet Shutdown – Meaning

An internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of internet-based communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unavailable, for a specific population, location or mode of access, often to exert control overflow of information.[5]


Ironical Independence Of India: India Internet Shutdown Capital Of The World

India is a nation known for its rich culture. When in reality, apart from being known for its fatalistic gender inequality and wide-spread caste-based violence, Indian has now earned the title of being the ‘World's Leader in Internet Shutdowns’.[6]For a country that also holds the distinction of being the world's largest democracy, this title sets a dangerous precedent about the future direction India is moving towards.

Since 2012, there have been 381 instances of internet shutdowns in India.[7] India witnessed six Internet shutdowns in 2014 which rose to 14 in 2015.8 In 2016, it more than doubled to 31, and in 2017, it reached 79.[8] The number peaked in 2018 to 134, and by December 15, 2019, there have been 93 Internet shutdowns.[9]

According to Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project data by accessnow.com, a website based on Internet activism, 67 percent of the world's Internet shutdowns in 2018 were in India.[10]

Data collected by the same organization from January to July 2019 showed that India continues to be the Internet shutdown capital of the world.[11]

In the last two years, internet services in Rajasthan have come to halt on 37 occasions—thrice within a 22-day period to restrict cheating in examinations held for recruitment in state services.[12]In Meerut, internet services were shut down in July this year after a local organization called for Bharat Bandh to protest rising incidents of mob lynching.[13]

In recent months, there has been a spree of bans on access to internet services in Indian states for different reasons. The government revoked Article 370, nullified Article 35-A of the Indian Constitution on August 5, 2019, and snapped all communication channels in Jammu and Kashmir.[14]Jammu and Kashmir have been facing an internet shutdown since the night of August 4, hours before the Central government abrogated erstwhile state's special status. Following CAA protests internet shutdowns have become more widespread. Assam witnessed a suspension of internet services in many places including in Guwahati for 10 days.[15]There were also internet bans in Mangaluru, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.[16]

The government has often cited security reasons or precautionary measures as reasons behind snapping the internet facilities. In order to prevent rumor-mongering, the authorities claim that these deliberate blackouts, the longest of which have occurred in J&k , are useful in pacifying or preventing the protests.

Perhaps the authorities only see the internet as a social media tool used to spread propaganda but value of internet in 21st century is much more than that. Shutting off the internet, it appears to be the newest and most popular means of repression. The government's claims of “Digital India" are ringing hollow in light of all this.


Legal Provisions

Section 144 of Cr.P.C: Before 2017, Internet suspension orders were issued under Section 144 of the Cr.P.C. A law retained from the colonial era, it empowers a district magistrate, a subdivisional magistrate or any other executive magistrate specially empowered by the state government in this behalf to issue orders to prevent and address urgent cases of apprehended danger or nuisance.[17]The use of Section 144 to suspend mobile internet was challenged before the Gujarat High Court in 2015 but the court upheld the power of the magistrate to issue such orders.[18]

SUSPENSION RULES: In 2017, the central government notified the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Service) Rules under the Telegraph Act to govern suspension of Internet. These Rules derive their powers from Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, which talks about the interception of messages in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India.[19]

Despite the 2017 rules, the government has often used the broad powers under Section 144.


Internet Ban Cripples Nation: Affects Freedom Of Speech And Expression

Freedom of Speech and Expression in terms of internet does not figure in the Constitution because the internet arrived long after the drafting of the Constitution and could obviously have not envisioned by the framers. However, the judiciary has done well to include this as an intrinsic right. The Kerela High Court in Faheema Shirin v. State of Kerala held the right to access internet as a fundamental right is forming a part of the right to privacy and right to education under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

In Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India and others, where the petitioner challenged the internet shutdown in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir, the SC held that “ access to internet is a fundamental right" under Article 19(1)(a) and “the power under Section 144, CrPC cannot be used to suppress legitimate expression of opinion or grievance or exercise of any democratic rights” and asserted that the magistrate while exercising power under Section 144 is duty-bound “to balance the rights and restrictions based on the principles of proportionality and thereafter, apply the least intrusive measure”.[20]

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all the liberties" – John Milton

The judgment of the Supreme Court is reaffirmation of something which is absolutely essential to a democracy which is Freedom of Speech and Expression. It is perhaps the most essential Fundamental right to sub-serve any democracy. Without Freedom of Speech, where is the question of democracy. It is now specifically held that internet is also comprehensive part of Freedom Of Speech and Expression and therefore protected as a fundamental right. Having also said that the court has also recognized that such freedoms have within themselves certain inbuilt restrictions which apply whether to speech or to publishing, to writing, to the internet and the internet will be subject to those same restrictions. The corresponding restriction to the said right is mentioned in Article 19(2) which provides “public order" as grounds on which to impose reasonable restriction on the exercise of said right.[21] It must be noted that “public order" is not the same as law and order. If the public at large is disturbed, that can be public order issue. But all instances of breaches of peace cannot be a problem of public order. Further, apprehension of violence could be tackled in other ways than bringing things to halt. It is pertinent to note that the claim is not that the state has no interest in maintaining the public order of place. Indeed the State has legitimate interests, but the restrictions must be narrowly tailored. “ Narrow tailoring" requires that State action should infringe on Fundamental Rights in as minimal a manner as possible in order to achieve its legitimate aim.

Internationally, the right to access to the internet can be rooted in Article 19 of the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights which states that “ everyone has the right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers".[22]

It is the essence of democracy to let people develop their opinions. In fact, the Right to Expression and Dissent is one of the most cherished features across all democracies. Dissent helps democracies mature and sustain over a period of time.


Conclusion

The internet is essential to the exercise of Freedom of Expression, Assembly and Association, both online and offline. The network shutdowns indiscriminately restricts the exercise of these rights and hinder the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health, education and livelihoods. It reduces the ability of emergency services to communicate and locate people. Shutdowns also severely impact work of media, preventing media workers from being able to carry out reporting and dissemination of information during critical times. The increasing ban of internet services is becoming a cause of concern for the reason that it amounts to a direct violation of Fundamental right to Freedom of Speech and Expression and affects the economic progress of the nation. A total ban on internet clamps down on the right to expression in total.

With internet blackouts lasting for 4,196 hours in 2019, India has lost over $1.3 billion in economic terms.[23]This places the country on the third spot among world's most affected countries economically after Iraq and Sudan, reveals a report.[24]

Freedom of Expression is an indispensable right guaranteed. Thus, an act of suspension of internet would be an unreasonable, unjust and arbitrary act. Also, disagreement doesn't justify destabilization. Therefore, the government must not muzzle dissent and try to ensure peace and harmony without extreme measures.


References:

[1] Have Your Say: Is access to the internet a fundamental Right? – BBC, available at https://www.bbc.co.uk (Visited on 5 February, 2020). [2] Zuckerberg Explains Facebook's Plan to Get Entire Planet Online, available at www.wired.com (Visited on 5 February, 2020). [3] Mark Zuckerberg says connectivity is a basic human right – do you agree ..., available at www.theguardian.com (Visited on 6 February, 2020). [4] UN says internet access is a human right – Business insider, available at https://www.businessinsider.com (Visited on 8 February, 2020). [5] Internet Shutdowns Definition, available at www.accessnow.org/keepiton ( Visited on 8 February, 2020). [6] India is the internet Shutdown capital of the world, available at www.livemint.com ( Visited on 7 February, 2020). [7] Internet Shutdown Tracker, available at https://internetshutdowns.in ( Visited on 7 February, 2020). 8 More than 350 Internet shutdowns in India since 2014 – DIU News – India Today, available at https://www.inditoday.in (Visited on 9 February, 2020). [8] Ibid. [9] Ibid. [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid [12] India's Internet Shutdowns Rules Need a Relook, Expert Says, available at www.bloombergquint.com (Visited on 7 February, 2020). [13] Ibid [14] Article 370: What is Happening in Kashmir? India revokes special status, available at www.cnbc.com ( Visited on 10 February, 2020). [15] Assam gets internet services back after 10 days – The Print, available at https://theprint.in ( Visited on 10 February,2020). [16] Violent CAA protests take 3 lives in 2 states, internet shutdowns, restrictions..., available at www.indiatoday.in(Visited on 10 February, 2020). [17] Internet Shutdowns: Background and Use of Section 144 CrPC – Digital Dignity, available at www.fordigitaldignity.com (Visited on 11 February, 2020). [18] Ibid [19] Ibid [20] Right to freedom of speech and expression through the Internet is part ..., available at https://theleaflet.in (Visited on 6 February, 2020). [21] The Indian Constitution of 1950 [22] Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, available at https://www.humanrights.com ( Visited on 15 February, 2020). [23] Internet Shutdowns: India Suffers $1.3 billion economic loss, 3rdmost ..., available at www.businesstoday.in ( Visited ln 16 February, 2020). [24] Ibid


Submitted by:

Roopsi Bhagat

B.A.L.L.B

The Law School, Jammu University


(Images used for representative purpose only)

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