India’s internet shutdown rule which allows for temporary shutdown of telecom and internet services “due to public emergency or public safety” was challenged by Rajya Sabha MP Husain Dalwai who called for annulment of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules, 2017, on July 31 in the Monsoon session of Parliament.
“That this House resolves that in pursuance of Section 7(5) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, published in the Gazette of India, dated the 8th August, 2017, vide notification G.S.R. 998(E) and laid on the Table of the House on the 15th December, 2017, be annulled; and
That this House recommends to Lok Sabha that Lok Sabha do concur in this Motion”.
The rule was issued and notified under the Telegraph Act in August 2017. Internet shutdowns have become rampant in the country over the last few years; they are ordered in events of communal tensions, public discord and even to prevent cheating in exams. According to a tracker run by Software Law Freedom Centre, the total number of shutdowns have increased from 31 in 2016, to 79 in 2017. Just seven months into 2018, there have already been 93 internet shutdowns this year. The SFLC tracks internet shutdowns based on news reports, so it is likely that there have been more shutdowns which have taken place, but have not made it to the news.
The spate of internet shutdowns
The most recent reported internet shutdown took place in Arunachal Pradesh on July 29; internet services were terminated intermittently throughout the day to prevent cheating in the state public service commission examinations. In Manipur, internet services were terminated for five days following confrontation between civilians, members of Manipur University Students’ Union and the police. The Rajasthan government terminated internet shutdowns for two days also to prevent cheating in state-wide constable exams.
On July 25, internet was banned in Jammu and Kashmir’s Anantnag district and adjoining areas after an encounter broke out between the Army and militants, according to Brighter Kashmir. Jammu and Kashmir has seen the highest number of reported internet shutdowns at 95; this is 40% of all shutdowns in the country. 35 of these shutdowns took place in 2018. Again, it is likely that many shutdowns have not been reported. To illustrate, in response to an RTI application filed by the SFLC, the Rajasthan government’s home department revealed in July that there were nine shutdowns in 2017 that were previously unreported. The RTI response also revealed twelve unreported shutdowns in 2018. The total number of internet shutdowns in 2018 have already surpassed the total number of reported country-wide shutdowns in 2017.