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CAA internet shutdowns: Violation of basic rights or extension of law enforcement measures?

The renewed protests against CAA-NRC Thursday saw internet shutdowns being imposed in parts of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Assam & Meghalaya.

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The renewed protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and proposed countrywide NRC Thursday saw internet shutdowns being imposed in parts of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Assam and Meghalaya. India holds the world record for maximum instances of internet shutdowns. The UN has maintained that internet access is a basic human right.

ThePrint asks: CAA internet shutdowns: Violation of basic rights or extension of law enforcement measures?

Internet shutdown violates individual rights, isn’t productive and leads to social & economic losses

Apar Gupta 
Lawyer and Executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation 

Internet shutdown is a violation of fundamental rights. Internet access is a basic right that must not be restricted. A blanket shutdown can be dangerous because it fails to distinguish between the legal and illegal aspects of the action.

During a shutdown, one can’t do card transactions or rely on e-governance. The poor and the vulnerable can’t rely on biometrics for rations and cooking fuels. On the face of it, internet shutdown also restricts legal forms of speech.

Blanket shutdowns are disproportionate and unconstitutional. In India, there has been no consensus on whether such internet restrictions constitute a violation of basic human rights. However, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the UN has stated that internet access is a human right.

Moreover, on the basis of some research conducted by us at the YP Foundation, these shutdowns are ineffective in curbing violence. A 2019 research by a Stanford University scholar says that internet access proves to be necessary pressure wall for people to convey grievances in a democratic fashion as well as make appeals for peace. But if the access is restricted, it leads to violence.

These shutdowns also lead to economic losses. Even small to medium enterprises are unable to conduct their financial transactions. A 2018 report by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations had said that India lost more than $3.04 billion due to internet shutdowns during 2012-2017.

It is clear that internet shutdowns violate individual rights guaranteed under the Constitution. They aren’t productive and lead to deep social and economic losses.

Such restrictions are permitted under law when certain powers available to people can cause harm to social order

Amod Kanth
Former DG Police

Student protests against the CAA and the NRC led to an extraordinary situation where law and order was disturbed in several parts of the country. In times like these then, the onus falls on the government to exercise control while restoring normalcy.

Internet access during such situations leads to more rumours that cause confusion and the police authorities are then forced to take action against protesters. Whether curbing internet access is justifiable is a larger question that the authorities have to engage with. This is entirely their call and a decision is made only after looking at the circumstances.

Internet access is definitely part of the basic rights of all. It aids the right to expression and free speech. Besides, the internet has become an accepted medium of communication.

However, in circumstances of violence, destruction of public property, arson or damage to life, the police is authorised to use force. In these situations, the police is also allowed to curtail the power of people, especially those causing harm to the social order. These restrictions by the police and the government are permitted under the law.

The question of how this extraordinary situation was created is an entirely different one, and can only be answered by the authorities in charge of handling the protests.

Internet shutdown goes against the narrative built around ‘Digital India’ and Ease of Doing Business

Prateek Waghre
Research Analyst at The Takshashila Institution’s Technology and Policy Programme

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was amended in 2016 to include the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet”. In September 2019, the Kerala High Court held that the Right to Internet Access was a fundamental right. The increased use of internet shutdowns in response to protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is a clear violation of these principles.

India is inching closer to the 100-plus mark of documented instances of internet shutdowns in 2019 and could possibly breach the 2018 count (134).

The growing reliance on connectivity for communication and commerce means lives are severely disrupted because access to basic services are denied by this disproportionate tactic. Studies have pegged the cost of these disruptions from 0.4-2 per cent of a country’s daily GDP to $3 billion for India over a five-year period ending in 2017.

These numbers, however, do not account for human/psychological costs. With the aim of stifling information flows, internet shutdowns suppress the democratic right to express dissent and may ironically encourage people to take to the streets, increasing chances of escalation.

This is also in stark contrast to the narratives built around ‘Digital India’ and Ease of Doing Business rankings. Continued usage of internet shutdowns will undermine people’s faith in the ability of the state.

In exceptional circumstances, it is important to take measures like these in people’s interest

Neeraj Kumar
Former Delhi police commissioner

I don’t think curtailing internet access is a violation of basic rights. The government’s decision to snap internet connection is in the larger interest of the public. It is important to note that all our rights aren’t unconditional either. Looking at the prevailing socio-political scenario in India, these actions prove to be reasonable.

It is important to accept policy measures like internet shutdowns because most protests, like those we are seeing against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), are organised at a very short notice. Moreover, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter only help people communicate, spread rumours, and create unnecessary confusion. This is of no help to anyone.

Rights are not unconditional; I think there are always certain riders and exceptions that come with the rights.

In normal circumstances, internet access is important for everyone. However, in these exceptional situations, it is important to take these measures in the very interest of the people.

Also read: China mouthpiece cites India’s example to justify internet shutdown ‘in state of emergency’

By Kairvy Grewal, journalist at ThePrint

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  1. Rights come with Responsibilities. When a society abuses that, sadly this is the outcome. I am personally against such shut downs but the rumor mill in social media in India is insane. Public order and a right to living safely is far more important. But the government has to use these measures with great care too! This can become a dangerous tool in the hand of government (especially in our corrupt country)

  2. So far, the conventional wisdom has been that the Internet is switched off to cool things down, “ prevent the spread of rumours “, to use the ghissa pitta cliche. Very disturbing reports coming in from Muzaffarnagar and other towns in Uttar Pradesh. Impeding the free flow of information can create a moral vacuum and a sense of total immunity for the use of state force. An administration that has nothing to hide should welcome physical and virtual visitors. No better way to calm things down.

  3. A brief shutdown, 24 to 48 hours, highly localised, when law and order has actually broken down, is understandable. The loss and inconvenience it causes can be debited to a larger cause. However, not 140 days at a stretch, for an entire state, as is happening in Kashmir. 2. Now let me cross the street and make the opposing case. Are citizens such namby pamby shrinking violets that they cannot handle the truth. If the reference here is to maintaining communal harmony, what about the well known sites / personalities who spew communal venom, laced with fake news and doctored images / videos, on an industrial scale. 3. Consider Karnataka Minister C T Ravi’s statement about Godhra, leaving nothing to anyone’s imagination. Gur khaate ho, gulgulon se parhez …

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