Internet suspended for eight hours in Patiala following clashes

The state government of Punjab suspended internet services temporarily in the Patiala district for more than eight hours (9:30 am to 6 pm) on April 30, 2022, as per an order signed by the Principal Secretary of Home Affairs and Justice department Anurag Verma. Verma was informed by the Deputy Commissioner and SP of Patiala that data services could be “grossly misused by certain unscrupulous elements”.

The order, passed under Rule 2 of Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, led to the suspension of the following:

  • Mobile internet services (2G/3G/4G/CDMA)
  • SMS services
  • Dongle services provided on mobile networks; except for voice calls

 

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India is considered to have the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world and is trigger-happy when it comes to imposing internet shutdowns. But the country fails to acknowledge the economic costs that come with internet shutdowns in India which were estimated to be $582.2 million in 2021 alone.

What was the rationale behind the order?

Verma, in his order, reasoned that there was a likelihood of tension, annoyance, obstruction or injury to persons, danger to human life and property, disturbance of public peace & tranquillity due to the recent law and order events in the district.

In its judgement, the Supreme Court had held that access to the internet enjoyed constitutional protection as it was a medium to exercise the right to freedom of speech and expression as well as the right to practice a trade or profession.

The shutdown was necessary in the public interest to “thwart the designs and activities of anti-national and anti-social elements” and stop the spread of misinformation and rumours through various social media platforms, such as Whatsapp. Facebook, Twitter, etc. on mobile phones and SMS, for facilitating mobs of violent/ volatile nature who can cause serious loss of life”, as per the order.

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“An internet shutdown will not achieve the stated objective of checking misinformation, which can and does spread easily offline as well. But now, residents of affected areas will not have ready access to fact-checking and will not be able to verify claims effectively. (2/4)” the Internet Freedom Foundation wrote in its thread on Twitter condemning the shutdown.

Recent internet shutdowns in India

Karauli: This district in Rajasthan was affected by communal violence on April 2 following which the state government decided to cut off access to the internet for five days along with a curfew. Mobile internet services were suspended in Karauli to check the spread of rumours, Hawa Singh Ghumaria, the Additional Director General of Police (ADG) of Law and Order in Rajasthan Police, had informed PTI on April 3.

Keonjhar: Internet services were suspended in Odisha’s Keonjhar district for a day following a clash between two communities in the mining town of Joda in the district. Government officials had told the Times of India that internet services were temporarily suspended as a precautionary measure though the situation was under control.

Hazaribagh: Mobile broadband and fixed-line internet services were restricted in the Hazaribagh district of Jharkhand for over 24 hours. While no official order had been made public, locals of the district informed MediaNama that internet services have been disrupted since 4 or 5 am on February 7, when they received a message from their telecom service providers that internet services had been stopped on government orders.

West Bengal: The state government’s Home and Hill Affairs Department ordered an internet shutdown in March this year for many days and across seven districts. The order said that internet services were restricted from March 7 to 16, except on March 10 and 13, 2022. Here are some of the districts affected by the shutdown:

  • Malda
  • Murshidabad
  • Uttar Dinajpur
  • Coochbehar
  • Jalpaiguri
  • Birbhum
  • Darjeeling

The order had cited intelligence inputs about ‘unlawful activities’ taking place in the absence of preventive measures as a reason behind the shutdown. It was stayed by the Calcutta High Court based on a petition filed by IFF staffer Ashlesh Biradar.

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