A standing committee on Communications and Information Technology has released a new report on the suspension of telecom services/internet and its impact slamming state governments’ use of internet shutdowns, stating that while they may be legal, they’re used for mundane matters and not big emergencies.
The 114-page long report, which was presented to Lok Sabha on December 1, also raised questions on the fact that there were no records of these internet shutdowns ordered by state governments. In addition to this, the report also points out that there are no parameters to decide the advantages of a comms blackout. As a result, many of these shutdowns have been ordered after “subjective assessments” from local officials.
India has seen the highest number of Internet shutdowns in the past five years, which seems a distant call from current Prime Minister Modi’s Digital India dream. In addition to this, these internet shutdowns have cost the country over $3 billion in losses as per the estimates by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.
Shutdown the “shutdowns”?
Apart from the questions raised about the misuse of internet shutdown, the report also asks whether or not these shutdowns are effective? There’s no data to show when and why these shutdowns were imposed as well as their impact.
The shutdowns are primarily aimed to prevent large-scale protests from turning violent by hampering protestors’ ability to communicate, coordinate and rally more people. However, no comparisons have been drawn to study the effectiveness of these shutdowns, as similar events have been happening since before smartphones were around.
Besides, shutdowns haven’t exactly been able to have stopped protests from achieving their goals, the most prominent example being the recent farmers’ protest about the country’s controversial new agricultural reform laws. Numerous comms blackouts were imposed throughout the protest, but eventually, the government gave in and announced that they’d be repealing the new laws.
This also includes the numerous internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s dispute territory over neighbouring Pakistan, where internet shutdowns are often used under the pretext of national security and can last for months on end.
The committee suggested restricting access to specific services such as Facebook, Telegram and Whatsapp to achieve the main aim of such shutdowns without necessarily impacting the wider internet and telecom networks.
In its final review of the situation, the committee stated that the “suspension rules have been grossly misused leading to huge economic loss and also causing untold suffering to the public, as well as severe reputational damage to the country.” The criticism applies to state and central governments alike.
There has been a recommendation to put a “proper mechanism” in place as soon as possible to assess the appropriateness of a shutdown, including defined parameters of what exactly is a public emergency or public safety measure.
Other recommendations include proper record-keeping of such shutdowns, including but not limited to the impact they have on a particular event. The committee pointed out that no record related to the shutdowns orders by state governments are kept by either the Department of Telecommunications or the Ministry of Home Affairs. Such information should also be made public to help transparency, a course correction in case rules or procedures aren’t followed and record the impact on the economy.