Public safety and public emergency, often used by state and central governments to justify the suspension of telecommunications and Internet services in an area, are not defined under Article 5(2) of the India’s Telegraph Act, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) briefed the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology, headed by Congress Leader Shashi Tharoor.
It is therefore up to the “competent authority to form an opinion” on whether an event threatens public safety and emergency, and thus to ban the internet in the area, the MHA told the committee. “The expression of public emergency is not defined in the law, but outlines broadly delimiting its scope and characteristics emerge from the article which must be read as a whole. The competent authority must form an opinion on the occurrence of a state of public emergency with a view to taking further action under this article,” the MHA said in its response to the committee.
Due to the lack of definition of the two terms, state governments and the Center have used these two grounds to suspend telecommunications and internet services even when the law and order situation is not can -be not so urgent and for “routine policing and even administrative purposes,” the committee noted in its report submitted to the Lok Sabha on Wednesday.
“The result is that while internet shutdowns may be ordered strictly for reasons of ‘public emergency’ and ‘public safety’, governments are reported to have resorted to telecommunications/internet shutdowns for less urgent motives and have regularly used it as a tool for routine policing and even for administrative purposes, such as preventing cheating in exams to defuse local crime, which are not problems of large-scale public safety and certainly do not constitute a ‘public emergency’,” the committee noted.
According to a study by UK privacy and security research firm Top10VPN, India suffered the biggest economic impact in the world in 2020 due to internet shutdowns, totaling up to 8,927 hours and 2.8 billions of dollars in losses. Of the 21 countries that had resorted to some form of telecom or internet shutdown in 2020, the economic impact in India during that year was more than double the combined cost for the next 20 countries on the list.
To avoid the misuse of the provisions relating to the suspension of telecommunications services, the panel suggested that the government put in place an appropriate mechanism, which can “at the earliest decide on the merits or the appropriateness of telecommunications closures /Internet”.
“Defined parameters of what constitutes public emergency and public safety can also be adopted and codified to ensure that there is no ambiguity in the decision of the reason by different States when implementing the rules suspension,” he suggested.
He also said that the MHA along with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) should establish a mechanism to maintain a centralized database of all internet shutdowns in India. Said database should contain details such as the number of times the telecommunications or internet service in an area has been suspended, the reasons, the duration and the decision of the competent authority in this regard.
“This information should also be made available in the public domain, which will not only contribute to transparency but also to course correction in case of deviation from rules/procedures and to assess its impact on the economy” , noted the standing committee.
The panel also suggested that the government should, instead of banning the internet in an entire area, explore the possibility of banning selective services such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, among others. This, the committee said, would keep financial services, health, education and other vital sectors functioning.