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Digital India and Internet shutdowns

Unrestricted access to the internet has to become the normal in the everyday life. Kh Raghumani, Special secretary (Home) in an order dated 19th July 2018, issued a memo No. 1/1(3)/2008-H, citing various reasons suspended all telecom services except voice calls in the territorial jurisdiction in the state of Manipur and directed compliance of his order to all telecom service providers of the state for five days with immediate effect.
Holding back access to the internet, deemed a basic human right by the United Nations is frustrating as these shutdowns threaten the democratic working of nations, and also point to the steady normalisation of the mindset that permits such blanket restriction on Internet access. International human rights law protects the right of people to freely seek, receive, and provide information and ideas through all media, including the internet. Security-related restrictions must be law-based and a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern.
This is the third time Manipur has witnessed blocking of internet data services. Orders were issued by the District Magistrate to disconnect mobile Internet services in East and West Imphal from 18th December, 2016 due to law and order turmoil over economic blockade by the United Naga Council (UNC). Mobile Internet services were reportedly restored on 30th December, 2016 after a 12 day disruption. Complete Internet shut down (mobile and broadband, except for certain BSNL lines) starting 2nd September, 2015 after violence in Churachandpur district
Indian law provides for online restrictions. Section 5(2) of the colonial-era Telegraph Act of 1885 allows the central or state governments to restrict or interfere with the transmission of messages, though it has not been updated to specify safeguards or procedure for internet shutdowns. Section 69A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act of 2008 allows the government to block specific websites and pages in “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State.” The law prescribes safeguards before blocking content, but in practice the process is rarely followed. Instead, state governments use section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which gives states broad powers to prevent assemblies deemed unlawful to shut down internet services.
India has witnessed numerous Internet shutdowns for various reasons, all under the same provision of law - Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (CrPC). This section resides as the sole occupant under the chapter of ‘temporary instrument to maintain public tranquillity’ and gives State Governments the power to issue orders for immediate remedy in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger. However, the increasing use of this provision to completely shut down the Internet is becoming a cause of concern, for the reason that it amounts to a direct violation of the fundamental right to freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.
The Internet is not only a medium to exercise the right to free speech and expression, but is correctly identified as a catalyst in the process of imparting, receiving, and sending information. This freedom is undisputedly fundamental for a democratic organisation; moreover it is an enabler of other socio- economic and cultural rights. Similarly, the Internet is highly instrumental in facilitating a wide range of rights by providing a revolutionary platform in realization of free speech.
Arbitrary blocking of complete Internet services is a lopsided action in any circumstances. Internet shut down even with validation, negates the possibility of targeted filtration of content and would render inaccessible even content that is not illegal. The authority to issue orders: lies with the District Magistrate, a sub divisional magistrate or any other Executive magistrate specially empowered by the State Government in this behalf.
The reasons include sufficient grounds, requirement for immediate prevention, and speedy remedy to prevent a likely obstruction, annoyance or injury to any person lawfully employed, or danger to human life, health or safety, or a disturbance of the public tranquillity, or a riot. There were no circumstances to ban internet even though there were protests on the night of 19th of July which was after the orders issued by the Special Secretary, Home department of the government of the government of Manipur, the day which Chief Minister N.  Biren visited the injured at Raj Medicity .

A complete shutdown of the Internet has implications for the entire population of that area, which includes innocent people who have no role in causing the apprehended danger or nuisance. This in turn causes wide spread censorship and a violation of citizens’ fundamental right to free speech and expression as it prohibits the sending, receiving, and spreading of information.
An order under section 144 is prohibitory in nature, and the Supreme Court has differentiated between measures that have a ‘prohibitory’ and ‘restrictive’ effect. It has pointed out, that the words ‘prohibition’ and ‘restriction’ cannot be used interchangeably. The threshold for ‘prohibiting’ a particular activity is higher and must indeed satisfy the requirement that ‘any lesser alternative would be inadequate.’ Hence, though, the use of this particular section has been validated in times of emergencies, where actions are taken at the discretion of the empowered authorities.
Section 5(2) of the colonial-era Telegraph Act of 1885 allows the central or state governments to restrict or interfere with the transmission of messages, though it has not been updated to specify safeguards or procedure for internet shutdowns. Section 69A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act of 2008 allows the government to block specific websites and pages in “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State. The law prescribes safeguards before blocking content, but in practice the process is rarely followed. Instead, state governments use section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which gives states broad powers to prevent assemblies deemed unlawful to shut down internet services.
Internet shutdowns carry disproportionate costs in a digital world where increasing numbers of people access information and conduct their business online. Considering the number of essential activities and services they affect, shutdowns restrict expression and interfere with other fundamental rights.
While government has been promoting tourism in this era of digital payments, just imagine a cashless tourist, who was stranded at “Sendra Park and Resort”, Moirang, after experiencing 2 days of general strike and unable to pay bills due to network failure on the next day. No tourists these days carries few cash as every payment can be digitally done. People here in Manipur are now finding it hard to pay bills, be it credit card EMIs or Recharge of MSPDCL, mobile postpaid bills, transfer of money, verification using one time password through SMS etc.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Digital India” and “Internet shutdowns” can’t coexist
The government has been pushing a less cash economy ever since it banned old Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes in the country. However, when mobile Internet is shut down, surviving without cash becomes an insurmountable challenge.
Writer-  Shyamsunder Haobam

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