Need mechanism to decide on merit, appropriateness of telecom services, internet shutdowns: Parliament panel

Economictimes, December 2, 2021

A parliamentary panel has pulled up the government over the absence of parameters to decide the merit of shutting down the internet during certain times, saying there is no clear-cut definition of what constitutes public emergency and safety.

The Standing Committee on Communications and IT, in its report on ‘suspension of telecom services/internet and its impact’, has recommended that a thorough study be commissioned by the government to assess the impact of internet shutdown on the economy and find out its effectiveness in dealing with public emergency and public safety.

The report presented in Parliament, also stressed on the need to put in place a proper mechanism at the earliest to decide on the merit or appropriateness of telecom and internet shutdowns.

On selective banning of services, the committee said, it will be of “great relief” if Department of Telecom (DoT) could explore the option of banning of selective services, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, etc instead of banning the internet as a whole during times of distress.

Such an approach will allow financial services, health, education and various other services to continue to operate as usual, minimising inconvenience and suffering to the general public and also help in controlling spread of misinformation during unrest.

Adoption of such less restrictive mechanisms will be a welcome initiative, the panel said.

“The Committee strongly recommend that the Department urgently examine the recommendation of TRAI and come out with a policy which will enable the selective banning of OTT services with suitable technological intervention, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram services during period of unrest/crisis that are liable to be used by the terrorists or ant-inational element/forces to ferment trouble in the specified regions,” it said.

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, said the report.

The panel noted that under the current mechanism “no parameters have been laid down to decide the merit or justice of the telecom/internet shutdowns.”

In the absence of such parameters, internet shutdowns have been ordered purely on the basis of subjective assessment and reading of the ground situations by district level officer and is largely based on executive decisions.

The committee observed that although public emergency and safety are the only grounds on which internet shutdowns can be imposed, as of now, “there is no clear-cut definition of what constitute public emergency and public safety”.

Asserting that internet shutdown can be ordered strictly on grounds of ‘public emergency’ and ‘public safety’, the committee said it is reported that governments have resorted to telecom/internet shutdown on grounds “not so pressing”.

They “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”, it noted.

“What is all the more disturbing is that the data relating to the number of shutdowns are not codified, leaving the procedure open ended for misinterpretation, subjective assessment and misuse…,” it said.

Suspension rules have been “grossly misused” leading to huge economic loss and also causing untold suffering to the public, as well as severe reputational damage to the country, the committee said.

Frequent suspension of internet on “flimsy grounds” is uncalled for and “must be avoided”, given that the government’s thrust on digitisation and knowledge economy with free and open access to internet is at its core, it said.

“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,” the panel said.

The committee expressed surprise that records relating to telecom services/internet shutdowns ordered by state governments are not maintained by DoT or Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

It has “strongly” recommended that both DoT and MHA should establish a mechanism at the earliest to maintain a centralised database of all internet shutdown orders in the country, which will contain information such as the number of times suspension has been imposed, reasons, duration, decision of the competent authority, decision of the Review Committees amongst others.

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, it said.

The committee expressed its unhappiness over DoT and Ministry of Home Affairs not having any information on the standard operating procedures or SOPs being followed by state governments while invoking the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency and Public Safety) Rules, 2017.

While the Supreme Court laid down the broad contours of safeguards against telecom shutdown, DoT and MHA, on their part “have not taken any initiative for devising/outlining SOP on telecom shutdown except merely conveying the decision of the Supreme Court to states/UTs through routine orders”, it said.

The panel has suggested that DoT in coordination with MHA should take proactive measures and issue a uniform set of SOP and guidelines to be followed by all states and UTs.

Frequent shutdown of internet services is an indication to the fact that State/UT governments are resorting to this method as a convenient way to deal with any restive situations without properly assessing the effectiveness of such drastic measure in controlling such situations, the committee opined.

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