New Delhi: The Modi government has issued orders stipulating that internet shutdowns can only be valid for 15 days.
The orders are part of a Ministry of Communications gazette notification dated 10 November. They are applicable for all telecom services, which include telephone services, mobile telephone services and internet access services.
The order could restrict the extended and sometimes indefinite internet shutdowns in parts of the country, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, which had earned India the title of the “internet shutdown capital of the world”.
The amendment has been included as clause “2A”, under sub-rule 2 of rule 2 in the already existing telecom suspension rules of 2017.
The notification says the amended rules will be called “Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Amendment) Rules, 2020,” and come into force on the day they are published — 10 November.
“The suspension order issued by the competent authority under sub-rule (1) shall not be in operation for more than fifteen days,” the amendment states.
Before the amendment, rule 2 only stipulated details of those who had the power to issue the suspension order, that they provide a reason for the order and that the suspension order copy must be forwarded to the concerned review committee set up to see if the order is in line with the law — specifically the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885.
It had, however, provided no time limit.
The country has witnessed prolonged internet shutdowns, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir. The region saw a shutdown from 4 August last year, a day before the Modi government scrapped Article 370, which lasted for approximately 213 days right up until 4 March 2020.
Kashmir also saw an internet shutdown for 133 days from 8 July 2016 to 19 November 2016 in the aftermath of the death of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani that triggered widespread agitation.
In Darjeeling, there was an internet shutdown for 100 days from 18 June 2017 to 25 September 2017 in the wake of the agitation for a separate Gorkhaland.
Experts expressed caution on the impact of the amendment but welcomed the intent.
Prasanth Sugathan, legal director of the digital rights organisation SFLC.in (it runs the internet shutdown tracker internetshutdowns.in), was among those who welcomed the move.
“This comes after the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir has had a complete internet blackout for 213 days and even to this day, 20 of its 22 districts have only 2G internet connectivity,” he said. “Internet shutdowns are much more than a ban on social media and cause harm to education, healthcare, economy and are especially harmful during a pandemic.”
Mishi Choudhary, founder of SFLC.in, said “only time will tell” if the amendment will end indefinite telecom service suspensions.
“Several states like the state of Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh have made it a practice of ordering shutdowns to curb cheating in examinations when the Supreme Court clearly stated that the government first had to determine that a public, and not any kind of other, emergency exists,” she said.