Internet Shutdowns Often Ordered for 'Routine Policing' in India: Parliamentary Panel

Because the terms 'public safety' and 'public emergency' are not clearly defined, they are used extensively by Union and state governments.

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New Delhi: The terms ‘public safety’ and ‘public emergency’ are not clearly defined in the Indian Telegraph Act, the Ministry of Home Affairs has said – though these are the reasons used by the Union and state governments to justify frequent internet shutdowns in the country.

It is left to the “appropriate authority to form an opinion” on whether an internet shutdown is required, the MHA has told Parliament’s Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology, according to the Indian Express.

“The expression public emergency has not been defined in the statute, but contours broadly delineating its scope and features are discernible from the section which has to be read as a whole. Appropriate authority has to form an opinion with regard to the occurrence of a public emergency with a view to taking further action under this section,” the MHA said.

Given the ambiguity, the two terms have been used even in circumstances that may not be as pressing and for “routine policing and even administrative purposes”, the committee found, based on the ministry’s reply.

Also read: Kashmir Residents Are Now Facing Unannounced, Unaccounted for Internet Restrictions

“The result is that even though internet shutdown can be ordered strictly on grounds of ‘Public Emergency’ and ‘Public Safety’, it is reported that Governments have resorted to telecom/internet shutdown on grounds not so pressing and have been regularly using this as a tool for routine policing and even administrative purposes, such as preventing cheating in exams to defusing local crime, which do not amount to large scale public safety concerns and certainly do not amount to a ‘Public Emergency’,” the committee noted in its report submitted to the Lok Sabha on Wednesday.

Of the 155 internet shutdowns that were imposed globally in 2020, India accounted for 109, digital rights group Access Now found. This was the third year in a row that India had the highest number of internet shutdowns across the world.

A UK-based digital privacy and security research group, Top10VPN, noted that in 2020, internet shutdowns in India cost the economy $2.8 billion, almost double compared with 2019.