On Challenge to Internet Shutdowns During Exams, SC Asks Centre: ‘What Is the Protocol?'

The Software Freedom Law Centre challenged the "arbitrary internet shutdowns", citing instances in Rajasthan and Assam where the internet was suspended to prevent "cheating in public examinations".

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday issued notice to the Union government in a plea challenging internet shutdowns to allegedly prevent cheating during examinations, asking if a standard protocol exists to address the issue.

According to LiveLaw, the notice was issued on a petition filed by the Software Freedom Law Centre challenging “arbitrary internet shutdowns”, citing instances in Rajasthan and Assam where the internet was suspended to prevent “cheating in public examinations”.

Although the Union government was not a party to the petition, the bench said only the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity) can ascertain the protocol and compliance with respect to the shutdowns.

According to Bar and Bench, the bench comprising the Chief Justice of India (CJI) U.U. Lalit, Justice Ravindra Bhat and Justice P.S. Narasimha said:

“We issue notice only to the Union of India. Union to indicate whether there are standard protocol with respect to grievance raised. We would like to see what is the protocol when it is about exams etc or bank exams or public exams.”

The petition sought the Supreme Court pass directions to ensure compliance with the court’s directions issued in Anuradha Bhasin while enforcing internet shutdowns. The top court had said in its 2020 order that internet services cannot be suspended indefinitely under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Service) Rules, 2017. It added that any order to suspend the internet is subject to judicial review.

Also Read | Over 100 Internet Shutdowns Imposed in India in 2021 – The Most in the World: New Report

CJI Lalit noted that the petitioners had moved a few high courts with similar prayers and asked why they couldn’t seek relief from one of them. According to LiveLaw, advocate Vrinda Grover – appearing for the petitioners – said that the orders to suspend the internet are not in the public domain.

According to Bar and Bench, she added, “State of Rajasthan told the High Court that there will be no shutdown. But immediately after that they imposed that. Will there be a threshold….will proportionality be maintained? They can even frisk (candidates before exam).. now internet is need to access basic services also like MNREGA benefits etc this is pan-India.”

The CJI said that the problem could be solved by using internet jammers, but buying jammers for every district will have cost implications.

According to Bar and Bench, the petition sought the following directions to the respondent-states:

To not suspend Internet services on the ground of preventing cheating in examinations and for such other routine administrative reasons

To produce all orders made by the Respondents bringing in to effect the suspension of telecom and Internet services to prevent cheating in examinations;

Only the competent personnel as authorised by the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 shall issue orders to suspend telecommunication services and no blanket delegation of authority is permissible in this regard

To publish all telecom shutdown orders in major national and regional newspapers in addition to websites of the respective Departments of Home

To form a review committee in accordance to the provisions of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, and to review all future orders to suspend telecom services within the timeframe stipulated in the law, irrespective of the time-period of the suspension

Setting aside of the 2017 order of the Rajasthan government that delegated the ‘blanket’ power to suspend internet services to Divisional Commissioners