Internet shutdowns on flimsy grounds may remain norms


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By Sanjay Singh

New Delhi, November 5: While the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government at the Centre is working on reforms of telecom laws in India, but it may still not offer remedies for internet shutdowns that are increasingly being imposed even on shaky grounds such as curbing cheating in exams.

The proposed draft of the Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022 seeks to consolidate and replace the existing laws, governing the telecom sector, but the segment which provides powers to the governments to impose internet shutdowns is a reproduction of the existing colonial-era law – The Telegraph Act, 1885, that the new law seeks to replace.

The guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court over internet shutdowns also do not seem to have found a place in the draft bill, experts say. Draft telecom bill in its existing form will not lead to any changes in the state of internet shutdowns. There is a possibility that it can enable Centre and the state governments to impose more internet shutdowns, according to industry experts.

As per the draft bill proposed by the Department of Telecommunication (DoT), governments – both Central and state, or persons authorized by them may issue orders for the purpose of interception or suspension of telecommunication services. Such orders may be passed in the interest of protecting the sovereignty, integrity, and security of the nation, in the interest of friendly relations with foreign states, or for preventing the incitement of an offence and for safeguarding public order, the provision in the draft bill says.

Notably, the bill that is being brought to catch up with the technological advances, at the outset defines “telecommunication” to include internet services and over-the-top services which do not find any place in the 1885 law. This gives the government the same powers of interception and suspension but over a wider gamut of services and without laying down clear limits to exercise such powers.

As the law on internet shutdowns stands today, Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act confers power on the government to order a suspension of services. Under this provision, the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) rules were introduced in 2017 to facilitate internet shutdowns by the government. While Section 5(2) is used as is in the draft bill, the 2017 rules are sought to be given continued effect under the draft bill unless superseded by a subsequent set of rules.

As per a report published in April this year by a global digital rights advocacy organization, Access Now, India continued to be on top for blocking internet services and imposing internet shutdowns in 2021. This was the fourth year in a row that India featured as one of the countries with the maximum number of internet blocks. In recent times, certain areas in India have faced internet shutdowns for preventing cheating in competitive exams and sometimes even at a call for a peaceful demonstration or protest. The grounds invoked by the authorities are least in favour of public safety or public emergency.

A lawsuit before the Supreme Court highlighting this issue was filed earlier this year, which led to the top court calling on the government to show if there exists any standard operating procedure for exercising powers to block internet services. The case however is still pending before the apex Court.

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1 thought on “Internet shutdowns on flimsy grounds may remain norms

  1. I believe the establishment of a draft regulation or bill for Internet surveillance and shutdowns is still better than a binding legislation. However, the debate regarding the abuse of powers on behalf of the government calls for regulating internet guidelines in an efficient manner and keeping the rights and freedoms of the citizens intact at the same time.

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