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Committee reviewing internet shutdowns in Rajasthan is not following the law, RTI reveals

Udaipur reportedly saw 26 internet shutdowns between January 2020 and October 2021.

no internet
Credit: Aditi Agrawal

The committee formed by the Rajasthan government to review orders for internet shutdowns, is not functioning as per the law, according to an RTI response to the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) on February 23. Formed under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Service (Amendment) Rules 2020, the committee receives the orders by circulation and does not record its findings but simply confirms such shutdown orders, Rajasthan’s Home Department revealed.

The committee comprises the Chief Secretary of the State, Secretary of the Personnel department, and the Secretary of the Legal Affairs department. In its RTI application, IFF questioned the the review committee over its constitution and findings.

This type of review committee has to meet five days after an internet shutdown order is passed, according to the law. It is also required to record their findings on whether the government directions were issued in accordance with the Telegraph Act (or not). The committee stands as the only safeguard against misuse of the legal provisions concerning internet shutdowns, IFF said.

Several questions were forwarded to another authority

In the RTI, the IFF posed eight questions, out of which the home department forwarded six of them to the Divisional Commissioner of the State. These questions are:

  1. Please provide information regarding how many orders suspending telecom services have been issued by your state under Rule 2(1) of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 since 10.01.2020.
  2. Please provide information regarding how many orders suspending telecom services have been issued by your state under Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 since 10.01.2020.
  3. Please provide information regarding how many orders suspending telecom services have been issued by officials in your state under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 since 10.01.2020.
  4. Since 10.01.2020, how many orders suspending telecom services have been issued in your state by any officer other than the State Home Secretary.
  5. Please provide copies of all the orders suspending telecom services issued by your state since 10.01.2020.
  6. Please provide information regarding whether the orders suspending telecom services are made publicly available by your state. Please provide information regarding where such orders are publicly available, including the website link, if any.

Additionally, IFF said that it would be filing an appeal based on this response.

What are the legal provisions for internet shutdowns?

Under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules, an order for an internet shutdown has to be passed keeping in mind that:

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  • Only the Secretary of the State (independently or under instruction from the Secretary under Ministry of Home Affairs) can order internet shutdowns.
  • There are 15 days of validity for such an order at a time.
  • The issued order has to be sent to a review committee within the next working day.

Rajasthan’s problematic history with internet shutdowns

Last year, the Rajasthan government shutdown mobile internet services, and even SMS services in one case, twice across multiple districts to prevent cheating during the Rajasthan Administrative Services Examination (RAS) and Eligibility Examination for Teachers (REET). According to reports, petitions have been filed before the Rajasthan High Court and Supreme Court arguing that the shutdowns caused inconvenience to others preparing for other exams, businesses working in the area, and so on.

An earlier response to an RTI filed by the Internet Freedom Foundation had revealed that the Udaipur divisional commissioner passed 26 internet shutdown orders between January 2020 and October 2021. Further, they cited threats to public safety through rumour-mongering, fake news, paper leaks, etc., on the date of the exam to enforce the shutdown in September.

Recently, the West Bengal government took a leaf out of the Rajasthan government’s book and ordered an internet shutdown in multiple districts of West Bengal for similar reasons.

You can read about the suspect legality and implications of the West Bengal government’s shutdown order here.

Parliamentary IT Committee flagged issues with the review committee

Last year, in its report on the impact of internet shutdowns in India, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology observed the following:

Review committee represents the Executive’s view, change membership: Non-official members like retired judges, eminent citizens, heads of public organisations, Telecom Service Providers as well as MLA or the local MP could be added to the review committee that is to convene, according to the telecom rules, five days after an internet shutdown is ordered. The committee recommended this after noting that the current structure of the committee was ‘largely confined to the executive side of the Government’ and that this would allow them to take a broader view.

Document review committee’s decisions: The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) maintain a central database of all internet shutdown orders. This should contain additional information such as the decision of the Review Committees, the number of times suspension has been imposed, reasons, duration, the decision of the competent authority, etc. and also whether any internet shutdown has been ordered by resorting to Section 144 of CrPC, etc.

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Consult upon and then modify the telecom suspension rules: The DoT can consult with the MHA, Ministry of Law and Justice to review relevant sections of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency and Public Safety) Rules, 2017. Consultation from States and Union territories could also be taken in that regard, if necessary.

Ensure compliance with guidelines and Supreme Court judgement: The DoT, in coordination with the MHA, should pass uniform guidelines and Standard Operating Procedures on internet shutdowns for States and Union Territories. The two should also see to it that these guidelines and Supreme Court judgements are adhered to.

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I cover health technology for MediaNama but, really, love all things tech policy. Always willing to chat with a reader! Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

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