According to a report published by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) on December 23, internet shutdowns in India cost $174.6 million in 2022. That said, the total number of shutdowns dropped to 75 compared to 110 in 2021. The duration of these shutdowns was also smaller, with most being under 72 hours.
69 of these shutdowns were imposed in Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan and Bihar, with 43, 14 and 12 shutdowns, respectively. The most common reason for these shutdowns was terrorism — accounting for 41 shutdowns. Communal tension, protests or political tensions and cheating in exams follow this up with 24, six and four shutdowns, respectively.
However, the report also sheds light on a deeper issue preventing these numbers from going even lower. Post-2014 trends suggest that the government has been increasingly resorting to preventive shutdowns for reasons including security and political or communal tensions instead of reactive shutdowns, which most happen after a situation has taken place.
SFLC states that nearly 60 preventive shutdowns were ordered in 2022, over 90 in 2021 and 80 to 90 between 2019 and 2020. Overall between 2012 and 2018, the number of preventive shutdowns was more than reactive shutdowns in 2012, 2014 and 2017.
Why does it matter?
India had the highest number of internet shutdowns in 2021 globally. While this number has dropped, these preventive shutdowns encroach upon the fundamental rights of millions of citizens across the country. They cut off access to essential services with little to no warnings.
The use of internet shutdowns as a ‘killswitch’ instead of a regulatory measure so frequently puts into question their legality. The report points out section 144 of the Criminal Procedural Code, which allows district magistrates to suspend internet services on the grounds of a situation that requires immediate prevention.
The government can also temporarily suspend telecom services using the Temporary Suspension of Telecommunication Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017. The act enables the government to suspend the internet in cases of a public emergency or safety.
The Indian Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin Vs the Union of India, stated that Section 144, Cr. P.C cannot be invoked using an “arbitrary excuse of power” and should be based on objective facts when in a situation where “the fundamental rights of the citizens are being curtailed”.
The judgement also stated that a complete suspension of telecom service, internet or otherwise, “must be considered by the State only if ‘necessary’ and ‘unavoidable’”.
SFLC’s report goes on to show that these rules and procedures set in place to prevent those in power from abusing internet shutdowns are not being followed by state governments in multiple cases.
Additionally, the report also shows that state governments dodge answers when asked for information on suspension orders and review committees formed by the government to review such orders by claiming exemptions under sections of the Right to Information Act.