Updated: December 2, 2021 10:34:38 am
Public safety and public emergency, often used by state and Central governments to justify the suspension of telecom and internet services in an area, are not defined under Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has informed the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology, headed by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor.
It is, therefore, left to the “appropriate authority to form an opinion” on whether an event threatens public safety and emergency, and thereby ban internet in the area, the MHA told the committee. “The expression public emergency has not been defined in the statute, but contours broadly delineating its scope and features are discernible from the section which has to be read as a whole. Appropriate authority has to form an opinion with regard to the occurrence of a public emergency with a view to taking further action under this section,” the MHA said in its reply to the committee.
Owing to the lack of definition of the two terms, governments across states and the Centre have used these two grounds to suspend telecom and internet services even when the law and order situation may not be as pressing and for “routine policing and even administrative purposes,” the committee noted in its report submitted in the Lok Sabha Wednesday.
“The result is that even though internet shutdown can be ordered strictly on grounds of ‘Public Emergency’ and ‘Public Safety’, it is reported that Governments have resorted to telecom/internet shutdown on grounds not so pressing and have been regularly using this as a tool for routine policing and even administrative purposes, such as preventing cheating in exams to defusing local crime, which do not amount to large scale public safety concerns and certainly do not amount to a ‘Public Emergency’,” the committee noted.
As per a research by UK-based privacy and security research firm Top10VPN, India suffered the largest economic impact in the world in 2020 due to internet shutdowns, adding up to 8,927 hours and $2.8 billion losses. Of the 21 countries that had resorted to some form of telecom or internet shutdown in 2020, the economic impact in India during that year was more than double the combined cost for the next 20 countries in the list.
To prevent misuse of provisions related to suspension of telecom services, the panel suggested that the government must put in place a proper mechanism, which can “at the earliest to decide on the merit or appropriateness of telecom/internet shutdowns”.
“Defined parameters of what constitutes public emergency and public safety may also be adopted and codified so as to ensure that there is no ambiguity in deciding the ground by different States while implementing the Suspension Rules,” it suggested.
It has also said the MHA as well as the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) should establish a mechanism to maintain a centralised database of all internet shutdowns in India. The said database should contain details such as the number of times the telecom or internet service in an area was suspended, the reasons, duration, and the decision of the competent authority in this regard.
“Such information should also be made available in the public domain which will not only help in transparency but also course correction in case of deviation from Rules/procedures and to gauge its impact on the economy,” the standing committee noted.
The panel has also suggested that the government should, instead of banning internet in an area as whole, explore the option of banning selective services such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, among others. This, the committee said, would allow financial services, health, education and other vital sectors to continue functioning.