Home/ Opinion / Views/  India needs to lay down net shutdown protocols

In the scramble of Punjab Police to catch hold of Amritpal Singh, it’s the state’s folks who found themselves under siege, or its digital equivalent, after their mobile internet access was snapped off by authorities to suspend online chatter and help nab the separatist leader. The aim was not achieved, but web users had to stay offline over the weekend and may have to wait till the operation is over; on Monday, that snap-off was extended again till Tuesday noon. Unfortunately, this is only another example in an embarrassing trend of data clamps imposed on various parts of India with little regard for digital rights. According to advocacy group Access Now’s 2022 report, India topped the list of countries with the most internet shutdowns for the fifth consecutive year. In second place was Ukraine, where the Russian army cut web access at least 22 times following its invasion last February; in third place was Iran, with 18 instances as the theocrats in charge sought to silence protests by women. That we fared worse than a war-zone and a theocracy notorious for its violation of civil liberties has cast our record on digital freedom in unflattering light. Of the 187 net shutdowns recorded globally by Access Now last year, as many as 84, or more than half, were in India—49 of them in Kashmir.

It’s pertinent to note that the Supreme Court had in 2020 held access to information via the internet as a fundamental right and ruled that any restriction must be temporary and limited in scope. Clearly, compliance with that order is yet to take place (at least in spirit). Such shutdowns impose heavy social and economic costs. Citizens are left unable to avail critical public services, students suffer learning disruptions and business operations get thrown out of gear. All this is at odds with the government’s push for a ‘Digital India’. Typically, snap-offs are undertaken when civil disorder arises or is feared, such as during large protest rallies or special operations (in Kashmir). Public safety and national security are the reasons usually cited. But we have seen shut-offs during elections as well—and even to prevent cheating in examinations. All these precedents have formed a slippery slope and lack of clarity on what justifies a shut-off has enabled its abuse. Assuming a wide berth of applicability, various authorities have resorted to this measure in knee-jerk fashion with little to show for the collective pain inflicted. In Punjab’s case, for example, it’s unclear if a proper cost-benefit analysis was done, given the move’s capacity to stoke popular disaffection, apart from its implied distrust of social media’s role.

This is not to say that internet shutdowns should be ejected from the toolkit of governance. If there is a justifiable reason for the state to take such drastic action for the greater public good, authorities should go ahead. However, we need to set a high bar for the use of such a severe tool. As a base principle, a shutdown should be the last resort, not the first. We must also have clearly defined rules and protocols laid down that all stakeholders can agree upon as being reasonable. These should leave no grey areas for whim to dictate choices. As an extra safeguard, such a decision must always have top-level approval, with a public explanation mandatory—as with, say, a lockdown in the realm of brick-and-mortar. In both cases, livelihoods can get hit in unpredictable ways. Clarity will help shake off the dubious distinction of being the world’s most switch-off-happy country, as befits one that operates under the rule of law.

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Updated: 21 Mar 2023, 12:45 AM IST
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