Par panel pulls up DoT on internet shutdowns; asks to keep record, assess its impact

Telegraph India, February 09, 2023

Expressing concern over frequent internet shutdown without any empirical study, a Parliamentary panel has pulled up the Department of Telecommunications for not maintaining the record of incidents and inaction on several of its recommendations.

The Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology on ‘Suspension of Telecom Services and Internet and its impact’ tabled in Lok Sabha on Thursday, the panel has asked the Department of Telecom (DoT) to lay down a clear cut principle of proportionality and procedure for lifting of shutdown in coordination with the home ministry to prevent any misuse of the suspension rules.

The panel rejected the logic of the DoT and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) for not maintaining the record of the shutdown, saying it cannot simply take the plea that police and public order are essentially state subjects and suspension of the internet does not actually come under the ambit of crimes.

“The committee feel that a centralised database of all internet shutdowns by the states can be maintained either by DoT or MHA on similar lines as maintained by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in the MHA which is collecting information on certain aspects of crime regularly of which communal riots is one of them,” the panel said.

As per one media report, there were 518 government-imposed internet shutdowns across India between January 2012 and March 2021, resulting in the highest number of internet blockings in the world by far, but the panel said there is no mechanism to verify the data as both DoT and MHA do not maintain any record of internet shutdown orders by the states.
The panel directed both the DoT and MHA to establish a mechanism to maintain a centralised database of all internet shutdown orders in the country at the earliest.

The committee recommended DoT to expand the review committees that review the order of telecom services suspension under the Telecom Suspension Rules, 2017. It suggested inclusion of non-official members, such as retired judges, eminent citizens, heads of public organisations, TSP (telecom service provider) etc, to explore the possibility of including local MP and MLA in the review committee.

The DoT in its reply said one of the members of the review committee is a law secretary with judicial background and presence of a member with judicial background provides review of the order suspending telecom services with neutral perspective.

“The Department of Telecommunications are also of the opinion that the composition of the review committee is balanced and needs no further modification. The committee finds the above reply of the department very unsatisfactory and the essence of the recommendation has been lost,” the panel said.

The panel report said that the DoT has not conducted any study to assess the impact of internet shutdown on economy.
The panel said that it agrees with the view of the department that social media can be misused by anti-social elements. However, frequent shutdown of the internet without any empirical study to prove the effectiveness of internet shutdown in controlling law and order, civic unrest, etc. is a “matter of great concern”.
“The committee are perplexed with the reply of the department and deplore the indifferent attitude of the department to such an important aspect of the subject. The committee, therefore, strongly urge the department that a thorough study be commissioned by the government of India so as to assess the impact of internet shutdown on the economy and also find out its effectiveness in dealing with public emergency and public safety,” the panel said.

The panel said the Supreme Court had ordered that any order suspending the internet issued under the Suspension Rules must adhere to the principle of proportionality. As per the amended Suspension Rules, 2017, any order issued under these rules shall not be in operation for more than 15 days.

“Noting that the replies of the DoT and MHA on the principle of proportionality and procedure for lifting the shutdowns are vague and lack clarity, the committee had recommended that the department in co-ordination with the MHA should lay down a clear cut principle of proportionality and procedure for lifting of shutdown,” the panel said.

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