In the past month alone, we’ve seen three instances of bans online: firstly, the ban on mobile and then wireline Internet in the state of Gujarat, which was followed by the bans in Godhra and the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Some thoughts on the bans:
1. There is information asymmetry: On the face of it, pre-emptive shutdowns, such as that in Jammu & Kashmir, seem unwarranted. As citizens (especially as those who don’t like bans), we never have as much information as our security agencies do, either before such an action is taken, or for that matter, afterwards. We cannot identify the anticipated danger that led to the ban. We cannot assess whether such a decision was necessary. We have no clue about whether this was the first option considered by our security agencies, or if it was the last recourse. We do not know what alternatives were considered. Do they have the right tools, the right training, the right people to make such decisions? We don’t know.
As of now, we also have no idea whether cutting of access to the Internet in a state received the approval of our Prime Minister, or whether he deemed this action necessary and urgent. We still don’t see how pre-emptive shutdowns can be justified.
2. Security Agencies are damned if they do, damned if they don’t: If they block, they’re criticised. If something goes wrong, they’re criticised. They do not receive praise for all the attacks that they may have prevented. Since there is no information, we do not know the circumstances that led to these decisions.
3. Governments generally tend to be very cautious, and sometimes overcompensate in order to prevent disasters. Governments have become particularly cautious after the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, which lead to situations where they have no idea or control over information being shared.
However,there are issues:
4. Is this the best approach? In our opinion – no. A government which is meant to protect the rights of citizens cannot allow a mob to hold the entire state (or country) hostage. The protection of individual rights are integral to a healthy democracy, and something as drastic an action as cutting off access to all communication (remember that there have been instances of mobile services being shut in the past) must be used in the rarest of rare cases.
5. Lack of communication causes panic: When entire networks are shut down, people aren’t able to connect with friends and family, or for that matter, with the authorities, in a situation when it is more essential than ever to allay fears. The Internet is now as essential a network as the mobile network, and it allows one-to-many communications, as compared to mobile which is only one to one.
6. Addressing misinformation: one key fear here for authorities is that misinformation can spread faster than they can address it, due to the viral nature of the information. Given how things work, this is going to happen repeatedly. Governments need to hold people responsible for spreading misinformation, and addressing a few cases will help create about spreading unverified information. Shutting down networks does not stop people from doing this over and over.
In addition, shutting down networks ensures that authorities themselves cannot address misinformation: for example, if the Chief Minister of the State could have recorded audio, video and text messages and the state could have shared that officially across platforms. The Prime Minister, while in the US, spoke about using Social Media to connect with citizens, and take their suggestions to improve governance, and shut downs indicate that the government has done exactly the opposite thing.
8. The Shreya Singhal judgment indicates what the Supreme Court of India thinks about this: While ruling that Section 66A was unconstitutional, Justice Nariman said that there are “three aspects of freedom of expression: discussion, advocacy and incitement. Only when discussion and advocacy reach the level of incitement, is Article 19 (2) (of the Constitution of India), which puts reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech, applicable.”
Section 79, which allows for blocking, is subject to the same test. While Justice Nariman said that the clear and present danger test and the public disorder test ought to be a prerequisite for restrictions on free speech, how are we to know that such an action is justified?
Just as citizens should not be held accountable en masse for the actions of a few (Individual rights), we believe that platforms should also not be held accountable for the actions of their users. Section 79 of the IT Act provides platforms that protection.