Internet shutdowns on the rise in India: What govt's new rule-book says

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India has seen a steep rise in the number of Internet shutdowns over the past few years. These shutdowns are generally imposed under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. However, it seems that Section 144 is not enough.

In a notification published earlier this month (which went unnoticed by most of the media until Medianaama reported on this on Monday), the Ministry of Communications has published the process and authority required for a cutoff of internet services in the populous country.

The notification was issued under section 7 of the Telegraph Act, 1885. Here's what the government has to say:

The Central Government hereby makes the following rules to regulate the temporary suspension of telecom services due to public emergency or public safety, namely:- These rules may be called the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017.

Read the full notification here

Who can authorise internet shutdown?

According to the notification, the order can be made by the Secretary to the government in the Ministry of Home Affairs in the case of Government of India or by the Secretary to the state government in-charge of the Home Department in the case of a state government (hereinafter referred to as the competent authority), and in unavoidable circumstances, where obtaining of prior direction is not feasible, such order may be issued by an officer, not below the rank of a Joint Secretary to the Government of India, who has been duly authorised by the Union Home Secretary or the State Home Secretary, as the case may be:

The order will be subject to the confirmation from the union home authority (most likely Home Ministry) within 24 hours.

Who reviews the order?

A review committee constituted by the state government or the central government will meet within five working days of issue of directions for suspension of services due to public emergency or public safety and record its findings on whether the directions issued are in accordance with the Act or not.

How is the order conveyed to telcos and internet service providers?

An officer not below the rank of superintendent of police or of the equivalent rank will convey order to the "telegraph authority", or to the designated ISPs who have been granted licenses under section 4 of the Telegraph Act. The order has to be conveyed either in written or via secure mode of electronic communication. The implementation will be determined by the telegraph authority.

Internet shut down in India

A day before the sentencing of self-styled "godman" Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the government had shut down internet services in Punjab and Haryana, as his followers were involved in a deadly clash with authorities after he was convicted of rape on Friday. Similarly, in Kashmir internet is shut down frequently.

According to Software Freedom Law Centre, India has had sixty-three internet shutdowns in six years. Another report states that the internet has been suspended as many as 42 times in 2017 so far.

In May, two UN Special Rapporteurs had been very critical of the government's decision to shut down specific social media apps in Kashmir, and Internet Shutdowns in general, and asked for connectivity to be restored. The statement had said, “The scope of these restrictions has a significantly disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir, undermining the Government’s stated aim of preventing dissemination of information that could lead to violence”.

“The internet and telecommunications bans have the character of collective punishment, and fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression”, and “Denying such access disrupts the free exchange of ideas and the ability of individuals to connect with one another and associate peacefully on matters of shared concern.”

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