Friday, September 07, 2018

ERR_INTERNET_DISCONNECTED

Sitting in our metro cities it is difficult to imagine a world of alternate realities. The internet and our access to it, is perhaps one such world. One where screens suddenly blank out and you end up with a digi-dinosaur hopping over cactus.

At a panel discussion organised by the Indian Express yesterday, a group of experts sat on the stage to discuss what seemed like a rather vague and tenuous topic - "Is Internet Shutdown a New Order for Law and Order"? The fact that this event - IE Thinc - was sponsored by Facebook made me all the more skeptical about its relevance. 

The panel had an interesting mix:  a young bureaucrat responsible for an internet shutdown at Ranchi; a representative from the Intenet Freedom Foundation, one from the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), and an economist. Except for the last one, who seemed long winded and disconnected like most economists, the other three made sense. 

I was surprised to know that the Government of India is very secretive about sharing data on internet shutdowns. Data accessed from other sources (mainly UN) indicate that there have been at least 254 shutdowns in 19 states during the period 2012-2018. 

While the initial intent of many had been to prevent riots and loss of lives from the the rumours spread on Facebook, Whatsapp etc., internet shutdowns were now being implemented for reasons that could only be described as flippant and irresponsible. In the most recent case, in Udaipur, Rajasthan, the internet was shut down for a few days to prevent cheating in a government recruitment exam!

Considering how internet shutdowns affected the lives of millions of citizens - loss of business, access to basic services, education, payments and so on - what was the legal basis for such disruptions? Here are some of the laws/rules enumerated:

  • Article 19(2) - places "Reasonable restrictions" on freedom
  • Section 144 CPC - "Unlawful Assembly" -- used against freedom fighters during freedom struggle to confiscate Gandhi Caps, now used to shut down the net.
  • Rules for Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services, 2017 -- just requires an SP+ officer to issue order
  • Section 95 CPC - banning of books
  • Section 6.2 of Telegraph Act - used for phone/network tapping

I am glad I decided to attend this event. If not anything else, it was a sobering reminder that it takes very little to turn the smartphone in our hands into a useless lump of plastic and metal.

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LINKS:

- Rules for suspension of telecom services, 2017 - http://www.dot.gov.in/circulars/temporary-suspension-telecom-services-public-emergency-or-public-safety-rules-2017
- Internet Freedom Foundation - https://internetfreedom.in/
- Report on IE event -7 Sept., 2018 - https://www.financialexpress.com/industry/iethinc-debates-implications-of-internet-shutdowns/1305181/
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