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We do not have data on internet shutdowns: Ministry of Communications in Parliament

Despite the ministry’s response, the last two years have seen a trend in internet shutdowns, especially amidst the farmers’ protests that took place across the country. 

The Indian government does not maintain data on internet shutdowns in the country since police and public order are subjects of the State, the Ministry of Communications informed the Lok Sabha in response to a parliamentary question. The question was submitted by Congress Lok Sabha MP Gaurav Gogoi.

Why it matters? At a time when the internet is such an intrinsic part of citizens’ lives, a shutdown in connectivity, either due to political reasons or as a security measure, causes a massive disruption and can be termed as a curb on freedom of expression. These issues have been debated heavily ever since communication services were suspended in Jammu and Kashmir on August 4, 2019, a day before the Indian Parliament abrogated Article 370 that accorded special status to the state. 4G services were restored in parts of the Union Territory, nearly a year after it was suspended.

Minister of State for Communications Devusinh Chauhan said, “Police and public order are State subjects as per seventh schedule of the Constitution and States are responsible and empowered to issue orders for temporary suspension of internet service to maintain law and order in the State or part thereof under the provisions contained in the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017. Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has informed that records pertaining to internet shutdowns ordered by States/UTs are not centrally maintained by MHA.”

This refusal to furnish data on internet shutdowns comes a few months after India signed a Group of Seven (G7) statement condemning among other things, “politically motivated internet shutdowns”, the Ministry of External Affairs had announced.

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The “G7 and Guest Countries: 2021 Open Societies Statement” signed by India and other countries read, “As we build back better from the pandemic, we must continue to deliver a better quality of life for our people, with no one left behind. We are at a critical juncture, facing threats to freedom and democracy from rising authoritarianism, electoral interference, corruption, economic coercion, manipulation of information, including disinformation, online harms and cyber attacks, politically motivated internet shutdowns, human rights violations and abuses, terrorism and violent extremism.”

4G internet data restored in Jammu and Kashmir on February 5

In response to another question by Gogoi, Chauhan said, “In view of the Constitutional changes and bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir and Union territory of Ladakh, in national interest and also in the interest of security of J&K, temporary restrictions on various communication channels like internet and mobile services were resorted to in Jammu and Kashmir. Subsequently, the matter was reviewed from time to time and restrictions imposed were gradually eased out in a phased manner and 4G internet data services were restored in the entire Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir w.e.f. 05.02.2021.”

Before that, on August 16, 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir government restored 4G internet services in the districts of Ganderbal (Kashmir) and Udhampur (Jammu) on a trial basis, the government of Jammu and Kashmir had announced in an order. Internet speed in other districts remained restricted to 2G. This move brought 4G internet back to more than 8.5 lakh people in the union territory.

Apart from this, the minister replied in the negative to Gogoi’s questions on whether the Indian government was aware of the economic cost of internet shutdowns and whether the Indian government had a mechanism to assess economic losses caused by internet shutdowns.

IT Parliamentary Committee had questioned Home Ministry whether Internet shutdowns work

In October 2020, in a deposition before the Parliamentary Committee on IT, representatives from the Home Ministry as well as from the Delhi and Bihar state governments were clueless about whether internet shutdowns are effective, or on the metrics that determine their effectiveness. Back then as well, the Home Ministry was unaware of the number of internet shutdowns that had been ordered in the country. The representatives had said that they would check and inform the Committee in the next meeting.

The Home Ministry and the two state governments maintained that internet shutdowns are essential to stop violence during riots and maintain law and order. However, they could not establish the causality between internet shutdowns and curbing riots, despite being asked to do that. It was also understood that members of the committee had asked the government representatives how riots were curbed before the advent of the internet.

Internet shutdowns: A look at previous occurrences

  • In March, internet services were suspended in Bhainsa, a town in northern Telangana, in the wake of communal clashes. Mobile internet was suspended in the town to prevent people from sharing any content that could aggravate the situation.
  • The Ministry of Home Affairs ordered telecom operators to shutdown internet services in Singhu, Tikri, and Ghazipur in January this year, for “maintaining public safety and averting public emergency” amid the farmers’ protest. Internet was suspended in these areas from 11 PM on January 29 to 11 pm on January 31. Telecom sources confirmed to MediaNama of having received the order from the Home Ministry.
  • The Haryana government shutdown internet and SMS services in multiple areas in the state after clashes erupted between farmers and law enforcement agencies in Delhi in January. The shutdown was ordered in the districts of Sonipat, Palwal, and Jhajjar, and was in effect until 5 PM on January 27. The government claimed it was shutting down these services to curb misinformation about the clashes that could be spread via social media platforms or text messages.
  • Internet services were suspended in multiple areas of the National Capital Territory on January 26 in the aftermath of the clashes that broke out between farmers (protesting against the proposed farm laws) and law enforcement agencies. The order, issued by the Home Ministry, said that internet services were suspended at Singhu, Ghazipur, Tikri, Mukarba Chowk, Nangloi, and “adjoining areas”.
  • The Rajasthan government in November suspended mobile internet services in several parts of Jaipur district in wake of the ongoing Gujjar agitation. Mobile internet was shut down for 24 hours starting at 5 pm on November 2 in the tehsils (blocks) of Kotputli, Paota, Shahpura, Viratnagar, Jamwaramgarh, Phagi, Madhorajpura, Dudu, and Mojmabad. All internet services except for broadband services were shut down.
  • Rajasthan suspended internet in four districtsDungarpur, Udaipur, Banswara, and Pratapgarh — in September 2020, after violent protests erupted in Dungarpur district, the Hindustan Times had reported. Hundreds of tribal youths reportedly blocked national highway No. 8 in Dungarpur, demanding that over 1,100 unreserved posts of government teachers be filled with ST candidates.

Internet shutdown rules amended in November 2020

The Indian government amended the internet shutdown rules, formally known as the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules, to restrict the validity of suspension orders to 15 days. Any state or central home department — the only ones legally authorised to order internet suspensions — can now only suspend internet for a period of 15 days through an order.

This is in addition to the due process they must already follow, such as forming a review committee after a suspension and letting only the home secretary issue suspension orders. While the amendment is presumably aimed at preventing prolonged blackouts, such as the 7-month long internet shutdown in Jammu & Kashmir, administrations can still restrict internet access by simply reissuing orders every 15 days.

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Full Text of Question and Answer

(a) whether the Government has any data on the number of internet shut downs imposed in the country during each of the last three years and if so, the details thereof;
(b) whether Jammu and Kashmir faced a prolonged internet shutdown in 2019 and 2020 and if so, the details thereof and the reaction of the Government thereto;
(c) whether the Government has any data on how the number of internet shutdown compares internationally and if so, the details thereof;
(d) whether the Government is aware that internet shut down incurs economic costs and if so, the details thereof and the reaction of the Government thereto;
(e) whether the Government has any evaluation mechanism to assess economic losses caused by internet shutdowns; and
(f) whether the Government has taken any steps to restrict the practice of internet shutdown and if so, the details thereof and if not, the reasons therefor?

ANSWER

(a) Police and public order are State subjects as per seventh schedule of the Constitution and States are responsible and empowered to issue orders for temporary suspension of internet service to maintain law and order in the State or part thereof under the provisions contained in the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017. Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has informed that records pertaining to internet shutdowns ordered by States/UTs are not centrally maintained by MHA. Further, the permissions granted for internet shutdown to Delhi Police have been made available on MHA website.

(b) In view of the Constitutional changes and bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and
Kashmir into Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir and Union territory of Ladakh, in national interest and also in the interest of security of J&K, temporary restrictions on various communication channels like internet and mobile services were resorted to in Jammu and Kashmir. Subsequently, the matter was reviewed from time to time and restrictions imposed were gradually eased out in a phased manner and 4G internet data services were restored in the entire Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir w.e.f. 05.02.2021.

(c) No such authentic information is available with DoT.

(d) & (e) Department of Telecommunications has no mechanism to assess socio economic impact of internet shutdown. The contribution of internet for the well-being of citizens has to be balanced with social media platforms being misused by anti-social elements requiring temporary shutdowns as per rules based on the assessment by Local (State/UT Government) Authorities.

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(f) In light of the Hon’ble Supreme Court judgment dated 10.01.2020 in W.P.(C) no. 1031/2019 and 1164/2019, Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency & Public Safety) Rules, 2017 has been amended vide Gazette Notification dated 10.11.2020. The said amendment has been forwarded to all Chief Secretaries/Administrators of States/UTs emphasizing that Hon’ble Supreme Court has mandated the publication of suspension orders and all orders for suspension of Telecom Services must adhere to the principle of proportionality and must not extend beyond the necessary duration.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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