👍👍👍Unable to connect | Business Standard Editorials

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Internet shutdowns must be minimised

India continues to top global lists in imposing internet shutdowns for the fifth year in a row, with 84 such documented cases in 2022, according to the annual report released by digital rights organisation Access Now, in collaboration with the KeepItOn coalition. India has been responsible for around 58 per cent of all documented global shutdowns since 2016. In addition to blanket shutdowns, Indian authorities have blocked over 55,000 websites in the 2015-22 period, with over 6,700 such blocks of websites and platforms occurring in 2022. Shutdowns and censorships violate the fundamental right to free expression. In addition, these are economically damaging, and run completely against the grain of the stated policy of encouraging “Digital India” with its promise of e-commerce and digital transactions. Although there have been legal challenges, shutdowns continued to be imposed in knee-jerk fashion by both the central and state governments. The reasons range from civil protests, to politically sensitive murders, to elections, to preventing cheating in exams.

The government is reluctant to log and release the data related to shutdown orders despite being asked to do so by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology. Moreover, the government does not have a clear-cut principle of proportionality and procedure for imposing and lifting shutdowns. The Jammu & Kashmir region remained most prone to shutdowns globally, with access cut at least 49 times in 2022, including 16 back-to-back orders for three-day-long curfew-style shutdowns. In addition, there were 12 shutdowns in Rajasthan, seven in West Bengal, and four each in Haryana and Jharkhand. As the report outlined, the Centre’s reluctance to document shutdowns makes it likely that there were many more unrecorded ones. According to one study, India may have suffered over $2.8 billion-equivalent in economic losses due to shutdowns in 2020, and it is estimated to have lost over $500 million in 2021. Both small and large businesses lose out on online orders and, hence, revenues, whenever shutdowns are imposed. It becomes impossible to digitally transfer money, or to access net banking and fintech services. Regions which suffer persistent shutdowns like Kashmir, and the Northeast, regress to being cash economies and end up lagging the rest of the national economy. Telecom operators are directly affected by revenue losses, and customer dissatisfaction.

In Bhasin Vs Union of India, the Supreme Court ruled that an indefinite suspension of internet services was illegal and orders for shutdowns must satisfy the tests of necessity and proportionality. The court also directed the government to review shutdown orders against the tests outlined in its judgment and lift those that were not necessary, or imposed without a clear temporal limit. The court reiterated that freedom of expression online enjoyed constitutional protection, and it could be restricted only in the name of national security. The court also held that though the government was empowered to impose shutdowns, any such orders imposing such restrictions had to be made public and were subject to judicial review. Although this judgment was issued in January 2020, it appears to have been largely ignored. Many of the shutdowns imposed in 2022 don’t seem to meet the criteria for necessity and proportionality and there is no system of review in place. With increasing penetration of the internet, it is important to have a clear policy to minimise shutdowns.

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