Riot control or counterproductive?
Aditya Varma Kunatharaju and Avinash Cherian Mathews explain why frequent internet shutdown in India is worrisome
India has already had 42 Internet shutdowns in 2018 in contrast to 70 that happened throughout last year. Over the last few years, India has had the highest number of shutdowns in the world; five times more than the second country on the list (Pakistan) and much higher than countries in the Middle East and Africa. An Internet shutdown occurs when the State orders telecom companies to shut down mobile Internet services. Suspending the Internet has almost become an obligatory extension of Section 144 of CrPC, with services being suspended in 26 different districts across 5 states, all within the first 20 days of April. This is clearly indicative of how shutdowns have become the preferred tactic to deal with demonstrations such as the Kathua protests and the Bharat Bandh.
Rules passed by Ministry of Communications in August 2017 as a notification on the Indian Telegraph Act have statutorily legitimised the temporary suspension of telecom data services in the interest of public safety. The new law is a step towards due process and transparency. Earlier, the decision to suspend Internet services would be made under the discretion of District Collectors and Magistrates via Section 144 of the CrPC. The notification was brought in as shutting down Internet services was seen to be excess use of the discretionary powers granted to Collectors under Section 144. This step moves power away from local actors to more centralised ones, allowing only the Union Home Secretary or the State Home Secretary to suspend the Internet. Section 144 had no provision for the decision made by a Magistrate to be reviewed; however, any person aggrieved could move a Magistrate or the State Government to rescind or alter the order made under the section. The new law stipulates that the decision to shutdown Internet services must be reviewed by a Central or State Review Committee within 5 working days of the issue of directions; this would reduce the scope of abuse, at least in theory. Although this may be a step in the right direction, it is troubling that the frequency of shutdowns has been increasing. But are Internet shutdowns more counterproductive than effective for riot prophylaxis?
The classical justification for shutdowns has been that they prevent the spread of material that may incite violence. Riots have been happening from time immemorial and despite Biplab Kumar Deb's beliefs, the Internet being widely available in India has been the case for only the last 8-10 years. Despite the Internet getting shutdown, misinformation and rumours continue to spread, as other means of communication such as phone calls are not shutdown. Suspending the Internet hampers the ability of citizens to contact friends and family during hazardous and possibly life-threatening situations. It also becomes difficult for law enforcement authorities to release clarifications and reports that can dispel malicious rumours as well as transmit warnings and information that can assure citizens of safety.
Governments in other countries have realised that the Internet can be a useful tool in times of turmoil. Post the spate of terrorist attacks in France, the French Government considered shutting down the Internet but realised that the gains were outweighed by the costs of people not being able to speak to each other, especially victims. Instead, they developed an app with an alert button, which would alert the police and inform them about areas of danger. Facebook followed suit and developed a button with which people could mark themselves safe; this feature has seen widespread use in times of natural disasters.
The economic cost associated with Internet shutdowns is very significant. In October 2016, The Brookings Institute calculated the financial losses that India had sustained due to the 22 temporary Internet shutdowns between July 2015 and June 2016 and arrived at a figure of $968 million. This figure factors in the percentage of the GDP "derived from the Internet economy", online ad services, as well as digital payments. These staggering numbers are derived from a pre-demonetisation economy. Mobile banking transactions have seen an astronomical growth. In the financial year 2013-14, there were 9.47 crore mobile banking transactions. Whereas in the financial year 2016-17, there were 72 crore mobile banking transactions. The rise in the number of shutdowns over the last few years coupled with the increase in the use of Debit/Credit cards, mobile payment systems, and the unified payment interface could have catastrophic effects on the economy.
The main inference from the government's actions over the last two years is that they refuse to respect the right to access the Internet. Often times, a shutdown can be used to quell legitimate acts of peaceful protest, as may have been the case in the Kathua and Bharat Bandh protests. In the case of Arup Bhuyan v/s State of Assam, the Supreme Court of India adopted the Brandenburg Test from American jurisprudence, which states that merely publishing or circulating material that justifies the commission of violent acts is not per se illegal. It is only illegal the moment it incites imminent lawless action. Given the substantial collateral impact of such a decision on the common citizen, the Government should be more hesitant to impose an Internet shutdown. Possible alternatives for a blanket Internet shutdown could be a limited or surgical shutdown in a particular area, the use of Internet messaging apps to establish official channels of communication during times of riots, and increasing the infrastructure available to police IT teams to track down nefarious individuals spreading inciting messages.
The increasing blanket Internet bans is a worrisome trend. In the digital age, the Internet has become a medium for citizens to access their Fundamental Rights such as freedom of speech and expression, freedom to practice a profession and a right to education. Society has adopted the Internet as a means of staying connected. Blanket Internet bans act as a negative stimulus on society, the economy, and family life, and thus must be limited to enable digital India to flourish. It may seem intuitive that Internet bans are a necessary precaution in a volatile nation such as India, but the apparent benefits are outweighed by the underlying detrimental effects on the local economy, citizens' peace of mind, and individual rights.
(The authors are students at Jindal Global Law School. Views expressed are strictly personal)