New Delhi: The rules for regulating internet shutdowns in India have been “grossly misused”, leading not only to huge economic loss and untold suffering for the public, but also to “severe reputational damage” to the country, the parliamentary panel for communications and information technology (IT) has said.
The panel has recommended that the government put a proper mechanism in place at the earliest to decide on the merits or appropriateness of telecom or internet shutdowns.
The Standing Committee on Communications and IT tabled a report Wednesday on the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Service) Rules, 2017.
Titled ‘Suspension of Telecom Services/ Internet and Its Impact’, the report says that, at a time when the government’s thrust is on digitisation and a knowledge economy with free and open access to internet at its core, frequent suspension of internet on flimsy grounds is uncalled for and must be avoided.
The parliamentary panel, which is headed by senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, quoted the Cellular Operators Association of India, according to whom telecom operators reportedly lose Rs 24.5 million (2.45 crore) per hour in every circle area where there is a shutdown or throttling.
“Other businesses which rely on the internet could lose up to 50 per cent of the aforementioned amount,” the report says. The panel says in its report that there is a need to monitor internet shutdowns so that these are not misused to the disadvantage of people at large.
In January 2020, the Supreme Court, ruling on a petition against the suspension of communications in Jammu and Kashmir, had issued guidelines on internet shutdowns. These included directions that any indefinite suspension would be subject to regular judicial scrutiny, and that the government must provide detailed reasons for the suspension so that aggrieved persons may challenge them in court.
Following this, the 2017 rules were amended in November 2020 to mandate that any suspension order issued shall not be in operation for more than 15 days, and all such orders should be published to enable the affected persons to challenge them before a high court or other appropriate forum.
The rules also say that a suspension order must adhere to the principle of proportionality.
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‘No record of shutdowns by states, vague rules, national security’
Many states including Bihar, and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, ordered internet shutdowns in 2019-20, the panel noted.
Despite this, the panel was “surprised” to note, neither the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) under the Ministry of Communications, nor the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), maintains any record of internet shutdown orders by states.
Officials from the DoT and MHA also told the panel that they were unaware of the number of internet shutdowns imposed by states.
The report notes that, under the present mechanism, no parameters have been laid down to decide the merit or justice of a shutdown.
“In the absence of any such laid-down parameters, internet shutdowns have been ordered purely on the basis of subjective assessment and reading of the ground situations by district-level officers, and are largely based on executive decisions,” the report says.
Under the rules, ‘public emergency’ and ‘public safety’ are the only grounds on which internet shutdowns can be imposed. However, the report notes that there is as yet no clear definition of these terms.
While the panel expressed concern about the prolonged internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir, it said in its report that the government indicated that this was undertaken for reasons of national security.
Representatives of the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir had told the committee that a total of 93 orders had been released since the Supreme Court issued its directions. This includes 76 orders issued by the competent authority to confirm directions by authorised officers to shut down the internet.
‘Suspension rules 2017 are sketchy and inadequate’
The committee has also pulled up the government by alleging that, despite the Supreme Court’s intervention, the DoT did not “strengthen” the 2017 suspension rules adequately for regulating internet shutdowns, and left many of the provisions “open-ended”.
The committee said it was disturbed to note that the department had formulated the 2017 rules haphazardly, and that it required the intervention of the Supreme Court to lay down various safeguards in the provisions.
The report says, “though the department came out with suspension rules, these were sketchy and far too inadequate, lacking in several aspects which needed clarity and precision”.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)
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