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Needed: a policy on internet shutdowns

LiveMint logoLiveMint 09-07-2017 Livemint

It started, as it often does these days, with a Facebook post. On 30 June, an image posted from the Facebook account of a 17-year-old Hindu high school student in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district led to large-scale sectarian violence in the area, resulting in the death of at least one person. The government’s response to control the situation was to suspend internet services. In another part of Bengal— in the hills of Darjeeling where the Gorkhaland ethnic movement has erupted again—an internet shutdown has been in place for nearly three weeks now.

Meanwhile, in Jammu and Kashmir, a pre-emptive internet shutdown was put in place on Thursday night as security was being beefed up for the first death anniversary of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. This is the seventh such shutdown in the state this year alone, followed by Haryana (which has had five shutdowns), Rajasthan (three), and Uttar Pradesh and Odisha (two each), according to the Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC).

The SFLC’s tracker also shows that the frequency of internet shutdowns—some are imposed for a few hours while others are in place for months—has been increasing over the years. From just three in 2012, the number has gone up to 31 in 2016. In 2017, just about halfway through the calendar year, there have already been 26 shutdowns across India.

This upward trend is to be expected. As internet literacy and penetration increase, the use of the internet for mischief and malice will also increase. But the internet’s increasing centrality in India, both social and economic, means that the current response of shutting it down every time there is a law and order problem is untenable for several reasons.

First, internet shutdowns are not particularly effective—people always find other ways to communicate, and studies have shown that such censorship in times of political unrest actually leads to more violent uprisings as the information void fuels uncertainty and causes panic. Second, the rising economic cost of such shutdowns also needs to be factored in. A 2016 study by Brookings Institution that looked at 81 instances of internet shutdowns across 19 countries between July 2015 and June 2016 found that they had cost the world economy a total of $2.4 billion. India, at a conservative estimate of $968 million, was one of the biggest losers.

There is also another, more basic, question that needs to be considered: Does a democratic government have the right to shut down the internet? After the Gujarat government suspended internet services for almost a week during the Patidar protest in 2015, the matter was taken to the courts. The petitioner argued that the shutdown was a violation of fundamental rights, but the Supreme Court eventually held that the government was right to suspend internet services to keep the peace. It will be interesting to see if the courts hold the same opinion, say, a decade from now when the Internet of Things (IoT) will have taken root, networking everything from cars to refrigerators. Already, more devices are linked to the internet than people, and a recent Deloitte study estimates the number of IoT units will grow to 1.9 billion in India by 2020.

In the meantime, there is still enough reason to question the legitimacy of internet shutdowns—especially in open societies such as India. Indeed, it does not require a stretch of the imagination to see how internet shutdowns can erode democratic institutions and values. For example, if citizens are using the internet to mobilize themselves, then how is shutting down the internet any different from suppressing dissent? The choice between maintaining democratic freedoms and public order is a complex one, and India needs a framework that allows a government to shut down the internet in only the most rare cases, rather than as a first response.

One may argue that just as there are reasonable restrictions on fundamental Constitutional rights, and existing laws allow for curbs on individual freedoms in the interest of the larger good, the state is also within its rights to restrict internet access in troubled times so as to maintain peace and security. This in turns feeds into the larger debate of protecting civil liberties while also ensuring public safety and security that is happening the world over.

But perhaps a solution can be found in renegotiating our law enforcement approaches in keeping with the changing times and technologies.

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For example, police and government agencies could increase their presence online so that they can actively fight back against rumour-mongering. Also, in India, internet shutdowns are mostly imposed by invoking Section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code which, in emergencies, empowers local authorities to prohibit the assembly of more than four persons. In contrast, Section 69A of the IT Act lays down a tougher set of rules and procedures, through petitions, permissions and reviews from multiple authorities, before such a shutdown can be implemented. This isn’t perfect, but it creates a system of checks and balances which brings us one step closer to ensuring that if such shutdowns must happen, they do so only in case of grave emergencies that justify a temporary—and only a temporary—compromise with our democratic freedoms.

How do you think the government can maintain a balance between civil liberties and public safety? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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