On 26th January 2021 when India was celebrating its 72nd Republic Day, the Indian farmers were waiting for the parade to conclude to commence their peaceful tractor rally which is claimed to be given formal permission by the Delhi police. However, the rally soon got violent amidst a clash between the protesters and the cops and other activities. This was followed by the internet shutdown in Singhu, Ghazipur, Tikri, Mukarba Chowk, Nangloi and their adjoining areas in Delhi affecting around 50 million subscribers.
Now, let’s understand how and why the government snaps internet services. Firstly, under IPC Section144, the government can shut down the internet if it suspects any potential violence provoked due to false news on social media. In 2017, another act was passed specifically for the suspension of telecommunication services, The Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Act, 2017. Under this act, the government can shut down internet services in the public interest. There is another law, the Indian Telegraph Act which has similar objectives. The internet can be shut down either at the national level, the state level or at the local level. This usually happens in critical situations like elections, on an important judgement day or even to avoid malpractices during major examinations like the civil services exams. The government can either block access to some particular sites or snap the entire internet services. It can also slow down your internet speed to make it annoying for a user to wait for so long.
All this is legal on paper, however, it is being highly debated by human rights committees. Freedom of expression meddles during such times. During the adoption of a resolution and other provisions related to blackouts by the United Nations Human Rights Council, it affirms that “All laws that are protected offline, should be protected online as well, including the freedom of expression”. Various vital services like education, health care or even transport are seriously affected. Emergency services remain the worst hit during these times. Keeping in mind the digital world in this new normal, where we prefer to swipe our cards rather than exchange physical money fearing the spread of germs/ viruses and also in the process of online education, internet shut down is to be considered to have adverse effects. This is not the first time India has imposed an internet shut down. Reports suggest that India has imposed internet blackout 108 times in 2019, the longest one being the one in Kashmir as it was denied its special status under Article 370. It was a total blackout with no telecommunication services available. The families had no ways of getting in touch with members in other parts of the country. They were unable to procure any information about their family members whatsoever. Where internet shutdowns have been made legal in several countries, such incidences provoke us to ponder upon its legality again. The greatest issue with these blackouts is transparency, for there is no official data of the number of times they have been imposed. Most of the blackouts in the North-eastern parts of India, like Manipur often do not come under the coverage of mainstream media and remain obscure.
This article has been written by Ritu Katkar for The Paradigm
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