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Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology slams Centre for internet shutdown

Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology slams Centre for internet shutdown

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  • GS 3 || Science & Technology || Information and Communication Technology || Internet

Why in news?

Standing Committee on Information Technology slams Centre for internet shutdown

Present Context:

  • There were no verifiable, centralised records of Internet shutdowns in the country. Neither the Ministry of Home Affairs nor the Department of Telecom maintain such a record, the parliamentary standing committee on information and technology pointed out in its report.
  • The committee, headed by senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, pressed for a detailed study on the economic impact owing to frequent and prolonged Internet shutdowns.

Internet Shutdown:

Background:

  • The Supreme Court of India ruled in January 2020 that access to information via the Internet is a fundamental right protected by the Indian Constitution. The Supreme Court of India found in AnuradhaBhasin versus Union of India that any government restriction on Internet access must be temporary, restricted in extent, lawful, essential, and proportionate.
  • The expectation was that this ruling will limit the use of Internet suspension to to those extraordinary circumstances in which there is a public emergency or a threat to public safety, as required by law.
  • Unfortunately, these pledges have not been kept. India had more Internet shutdowns in the year following the judgement than in the year before.
  • India’s Internet limitations also contributed for more than 70% of the global economy’s total loss in 2020, and the country is still known as the world’s Internet shutdown capital.

Internet shutdown in India: Background

  • India is at the top of the global list of Internet blackouts.
  • According to the Software Freedom Law Center’s tracker, 381 shutdowns have occurred since 2012, with 106 occurring in 2019.
  • The closure in Kashmir following the implementation of Article 370 was the longest in any democratic country.
  • The Information Technology Act of 2000, the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), 1973, and the Telegraph Act of 1885 all deal with the suspension of Internet services. In 2019, India lost over $1.3 billion due to internet shutdowns across the country, making it the third-most economically affected country after Iraq and Sudan.
  • The shutdown is based on intelligence inputs that have been analysed.
  • This is a preventive tactic employed by law enforcement as a last resort to deal with huge protests and social disturbances in order to maintain calm.
  • It may become necessary to have internet shutdowns in particularly extreme scenarios where rumours on social media start playing a disruptive role.

Reasons for Internet shutdown:

  • Check for fake news: When there is civil disturbance, internet shutdowns are commonly used to impede the flow of information about government operations, to stop communication among activists, and to prevent the spread of rumours and fake news.
    • It’s also a way for individuals and the government to verify rumours and share the facts.
  • Preventive response: Cutoff of the Internet is an early and preventive response to prevent restive groups from organising riots against the government.
  • National Interest: National sovereignty cannot be separated from the Internet. As a result, internet regulation is an acceptable decision of sovereign countries based on national interests.
  • Jammu and Kashmir (J&K): In the Kashmir Valley, the government of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has banned mobile data access. It has also had its internet services completely shut down. Following the death of hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, restrictions were imposed.
  • Haryana’s government has imposed similar limitations in five separate districts in response to farmer protests that took place there.
  • While the governments in these cases have made the orders blocking access public, this is the exception rather than the rule.
  • The suspension orders have not been posted on the government’s websites in a few cases

Impacts of Internet Shutdown:

  • Create a Trust Gap: In today’s world, the Internet is a need, and limits without publicly acknowledged reasons create a trust gap.
    • There is also a shortfall since the Union Government has done insufficient to grant statutory legitimacy to the AnuradhaBhasin instructions.
    • The Telecom Suspension Rules, 2017, were changed in 2020 to limit Internet suspension orders to a maximum of 15 days.
    • The change, however, did not include a requirement that the government publicise its orders, nor did it include the Supreme Court’s directive that these orders be reviewed on a regular basis.
  • Against Human Development: The harm produced by such suspensions – economic, psychological, social, and journalistic — much outweighs any theoretical benefits.
    • Suspension of the internet should only be used in an emergency, not to impede the democratic exercise of the right to protest. In certain instances, using the Internet to seek assistance is a must.
  • Economic Impacts: The Indian economy will lose USD 2.8 billion in 2020 as a result of 129 unique incidents of Internet suspension affecting 10.3 million people.
    • The Internet is a source of information, entertainment, health care, education, and livelihood for people of Indian society, as well as a platform for them to engage with each other and the rest of the world.
  • Vulnerables are affected From a Lower Socio-economic Perspective: Internet limitations are frequently rationalised by claiming that they only apply to mobile data services. These arguments are likewise off the mark.
    • Mobile device users (dongle and phone) accounted for 97.02 percent of total Internet users, according to a 2019 Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) report on Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators.
    • Only 3% of users have access to high-speed Internet.
    • Since broadband Internet remains pricey, these figures are unlikely to have altered considerably since then.
    • As a result, persons from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately affected by Internet limitations.

Way forward:

  • All non-shutdown options should be ruled out: Governments should establish best practises in resolving issues at their source, preferring alternate approaches to Internet shutdowns. Sharing experiences across and within areas could lead to solutions that do not rely on access constraints.
  • Measure the Cost First: Before taking action, governments should do a cost-benefit study of the impact of Internet shutdowns.
    • Network outages stifle productivity, undermine business confidence, and jeopardise both short- and long-term financial commitments.
  • Diversify Voices: Internet outages should be factored into risk assessments by venture capitalists and investors. In view of how Internet shutdowns can entirely damage their ability to operate, the importance of small and medium firms, especially those outside the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector, to the local economy’s future must also be recognised more broadly.
  • Perform the functions as a watchdog: Civil society organisations, together with other stakeholders, should continue to monitor the impact of Internet shutdowns and play a critical role in pressuring governments to be more accountable and transparent.

Mains oriented question:

The ‘Internet shutdown capital of the world’ is sometimes referred to as India. Discuss ways to limit the number of times the internet is turned down. (200 words)