The number of preventive internet shutdowns enforced by the central and the state governments in India saw a major spike between 2017 and 2019, and as many as 95 of these lasted for more than 24 hours. There were at least 147 instances over these three years for which there is no data on the duration of the shutdowns as there is lack of any form of communication on these blockades, according to data available in public domain and compiled by Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC).
In most of these instances, there was no formal order being issued to the telecom operators, according to senior industry executives who requested not to be named. The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, where the internet had remained suspended until March 4 for 213 days, has seen since 2012 at least 60 instances of connectivity being snapped for more than 24 hours without any official order.
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Under the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, only the Home Secretary of the central or the state government can pass orders to enforce an internet shutdown in any area.
The order must include the detailed reasons for the shutdown and must be sent to a review committee the next day.
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The committee shall, within five days, submit its report and only if the shutdown is justified even after that will the communications blockade continue, officials of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) explained.
“The Telegraph rules lay down many checks and balances, but that does not happen. It is the first reaction. One good example is Rajasthan, where there has been a regime change, but number of shutdowns is on the rise,” an official said. Rajasthan, however, is also the only state that provides a formal order for nearly all internet shutdowns it enforces, officials said.
Despite a rising number of preventive internet shutdowns, the number of reactive shutdowns, however, remained low over the three years, according to the data. Preventive shutdowns are defined as internet blockade by the state in anticipation of violence, unrest or disturbance, whereas reactive shutdowns are enforced to prevent further escalation of violence.
In 2017, for instance, of the 79 instances of internet shutdown across the country, there were 51 where the authorities cut connectivity to mobile phone, while there were seven instances where connections to both mobiles and landlines were severed. Similarly, in 2018, authorities suspended mobile phone connectivity 126 times, and 100 times in 2019.
”93 of the 381 internet shutdowns between 2012 and January 2020 lasted less than 24 hours, 74 lasted between 24 and 72 hours, 41 lasted for over 72 hours, while no information was available on the respective duration of the remaining 208 internet shutdowns,” SFLC said in a report released in February.
Another rising trend, officials said, was to use Section 144 of the Code Of Criminal Procedure to justify the communications blockade and the continuance of it. “That can not be done. The use of 144 does not pass any muster under law. However, it is seldom challenged,” an official said.
A colonial era law, Section 144 gives a magistrate the powers to enforce a general shutdown of the area, if he or she believes that there could be violence in the area, arising from a certain tension between two or more groups of people.
Most of the internet shutdowns, telcos executives explained, are done using the ‘kill switch’ individual tower-wise in respective areas. Following instructions from the authorities, the local unit of the telcos switches off power to the tower in that area, following which mobile phones in the area latch on to the next nearest tower.
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“What happens then is that one tower has too many calls and data volume being placed on it, due to which very few calls get through. So that also serves the purpose. Then that tower is also switched off and so on,” an official with a tower operator said.
While reports estimate that India loses around Rs 6,000 crore per year due to internet shutdowns, the government had told the Rajya Sabha last month that it did not keep a track of how much losses were incurred by the states or the individuals owing to the internet shutdowns.