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West Bengal issues an internet shutdown order which experts flag as deeply problematic

Following in the footsteps of Rajasthan, the state government will cut off internet access for a few hours every day, for eight days.

The West Bengal government’s Home and Hill Affairs Department ordered an internet shutdown for several days and across multiple districts, according to a report by The Print. The order accessed by the news website, said that internet services  will be restricted from March 7 to 16, except on March 10 and March 13, between 11 am and 3:15 pm.

The districts affected by the shutdown are:

  • Malda
  • Murshidabad
  • Uttar Dinajpur
  • Coochbehar
  • Jalpaiguri
  • Birbhum
  • Darjeeling

While the order cites intelligence inputs about ‘unlawful activities’ taking place in the absence of preventive measures; the timings of the shutdown coincide with the timings of the Class 10 board examinations being held in the state, PTI reported. MediaNama has reached out to West Bengal’s Home Secretary for clarification and will update the post if a response is received.

The state government has invoked provisions under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc) to pass the order, the legality of which is being questioned by experts. The order may also be in violation of the tests for necessity and proportionality that were laid down by the Supreme Court in its 2020 judgement specifically asking District Magistrates to ‘apply their mind’ before signing off on orders for internet shutdowns.

What are the issues that those subject to shutdown are facing?

The Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), a Delhi-based digital rights group that runs a research project documenting the impact of internet shutdowns, shared an anecdote from a resident of an impacted district in West Bengal.

Abhi business zyaada se zyaada online hota hai, woh totally band rahega iss beech mein. Phir boht saara godown ki  jagah hai jaha pe owner log monitoring karta hai CCTV se..ussi se kaam chalta hai…Maadhyamik exam jitna din hoga ye student online coaching bolo, school ka class bolo, aur college ka bhi class bolo, sabhi band rahega. Isike saath jo abhi main effect hone waala hai jo jaisa G-Map (Google Maps). Abhi navigation har jagah lagta hai, toh abhi gau mei jaane ke liye G-Map toh chahiye hi hoga. Abhi ye toh totally band rahega, is pe toh boht saara effect hoga,” he said. (Now, businesses are increasingly online, which will have to be completely closed during the internet shutdown. Lots of warehouses also work with the owner monitoring the work through CCTVs. As long as the 10th Board exams continue, other school and college students’ online coaching, school and college classes will also be shut. Now, we also need Google Maps for navigating, especially when going to villages. This will all be greatly impacted).

SFLC did not want any identifying information of the individual to be shared.

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“Such a shutdown would impact almost every aspect of life, including the delivery of government services.” — Prasanth Sugathan, Legal Director at SFLC

“You need the internet to ensure that your Aadhaar authenticated systems work. So this brings everything to a standstill during such internet shutdowns. These days I don’t know how any business that can exist – right from your telecom charging to your banking transactions, everything is dependent on the internet and when you have this kind of a blanket for this period of time – and I think it is spread over days in this case, so the economic costs for something like this would be huge,” Sugathan told MediaNama over the phone.

Why does the internet shutdown raise legal doubts?

The almost identical timings of the shutdown and the exams hint at the true purpose of the shutdown which may also be legally questionable, according to Sugathan.

 “Can internet shutdowns to prevent cheating in examinations be legal under the current legal framework? It can only be [legal] under section 5 of the Telegraph Act, so unless there is a disturbance or something which affects law and order, preventing cheating in examinations cannot be a reason for issuing such an order.” — Prasanth Sugathan

The order also invoked Section 144 of the CrPc which allows officials to impose restrictions on people from an activity, their property, etc., if a disruption to law and order is perceived. This is problematic as, given the existence of a special provision like the Telecom Suspension Rules, the order should only be passed under it, Sugathan said. Further, the shutdown was also not in line with the purpose of the order as outlined in the CrPc provision, he added.

The shutdown was also not in line with the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court in the Anuradha Bhasin judgement.

Previous history and legal basis of internet shutdowns

West Bengal may have picked a leaf out of the Rajasthan government’s book which had blocked internet services across 16 districts in September 2021 to prevent cheating during the REET exams being held in the state. According to LiveLaw, a lawyer later filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking directions to prohibit the Rajasthan government and other respondents from disrupting judicial services, digital court hearings, and e-filing of cases in the future by shutting down the internet.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, in its report on internet shutdowns, provided the following recommendations:

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Selective blocking: The committee recommended that services (like Facebook and WhatsApp)that can be used by terrorists/anti-social elements in times of crisis, be selectively blocked instead of complete internet shutdowns.

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

Curbing the use of CrPc: The passage of internet shutdown orders under Section 144 of the CrPc had been flagged, recommending that the DoT and the MHA monitor when states and union territories invoke the provision.

Under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules passed in November 2020, an order for an internet shutdown can be passed with the following conditions:

  • Only the Secretary of the State (independently or under instruction from the Secretary under Ministry of Home Affairs) can order internet shutdowns.
  • 15 days of validity for such an order at a time
  • Formation of review committee after internet suspension

According to a report from Digital Rights group Access Now, India accounted for 109 out of 155 internet shutdowns that took place worldwide in 2020.

Here are a few recent internet shutdowns:

  • The Ministry of Home Affairs ordered telecom operators to shut down 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.
  • In February, the state government suspended mobile and broadband internet in multiple districts of Jharkhand with no official order or reasoning.

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

What will be the future of internet access in India?

Do you want to keep track of internet shutdowns in India but don’t have the time? Relying on scattered content from across the web makes it feel harder than it needs to be.

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Written By

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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