Frequent Internet Shutdowns in India is a Matter of Concern, SFLC Reports

by February 8, 2017 0 comments
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In the last couple of years, countries all over the world have resorted to blocking access to the entire Internet as a measure to curb violence or public mobilizations. In North Korea, all websites are under government control and only about 4% of the population has Internet access. Similarly in Burma, authorities filter e-mails and block access to sites of groups that expose human rights violations or disagree with the government. Chinese people face the most rigid censorship in the world. The government filters searches, block sites and erases “inconvenient” content, rerouting search terms on Taiwan independence or the Tiananmen Square massacre to items favorable to the Communist Party.

However, the rise in frequency of such shutdowns is a cause of concern not only for the democratic setup but is also an assault on free speech.

According to Delhi-based not-for-profit legal services organization, SFLC (Software Freedom Law Centre), India has witnessed a sudden increase in the imposition of such restrictions on mobile, and/or wireless Internet services and they have recorded 62 such incidents. Most of these orders for Internet shut down are given under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which authorizes state governments to take action to curb unlawful assemblies or to prevent apprehended danger. A Special Leave Petition (SLP) challenging the use of this provision for restricting access to the internet was filed earlier this year in the Supreme Court. However, the Apex Court dismissed the petition and upheld the power of state government under Section 144 to suspend Internet services by stating that the use of such mechanisms becomes necessary for law and order situations.

Mishi Choudhary, President and Legal Director at SFLC said, “There is a global consensus that access to the internet is a human right, in a digital and connected world. Yet, many countries block Internet services as responses to conflict situations, or even for trivial reasons such as to prevent cheating during examinations. Unfortunately, these shutdowns not only imperil civil liberties but also grievously hurt the economy, as a recent report by the US policy think-tank Brookings Institution showed. The shutdowns in 2015-16 cost Indian businesses an estimated amount of $968 million (Rs 6,485 crore). As the pace of shutdowns increases, the costs will mount, particularly given the new emphasis on transactions by Internet payment systems linked to Aadhaar. Shutdowns are a very imprecise means of achieving any social end, imposing immense collateral damage. In democracies, essential social facilities should not be turned off by the State, which acts in the peoples’ interests. The dependence on mobile Internet services for public safety and order, education, business, and family life is a fact of our existence. It should not be intentionally broken by the government, pursuing one form of ‘law and order’ at the expense of all other social functioning.”

SFLC has also launched ‘internetshutdowns.in’, a new portal to provide policy makers, academics, media persons and the public at large with a repository of instances where blanket bans on Internet services, either mobile or fixed line, were imposed in India.

Per SFLC.in’s record, the state of Jammu and Kashmir has experienced the highest number of shutdowns (27 since 2012). Out of the total 62 shutdowns recorded since 2012, 44 were targeted at mobile Internet services, 8 targeted both, fixed-line and mobile Internet services, while no conclusive information was available for 10 incidents and no shutdowns targeting fixed-line services alone were recorded during their period of study.

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