Congress leader Shashi Tharoor-led parliamentary panel on information and technology has flagged the issue of “frequent internet shutdowns” in India, saying it cost the country $2.8 billion in 2020. The panel in its report submitted to the Lok Sabha on Wednesday called for defining the parameters and a “robust mechanism” for internet shutdown.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology’s report titled, “Suspension of Telecom and Internet Services and Its Impact” noted that frequent shutting down of telecom services and the internet affected life and liberty of people.
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In January 2020, the Supreme Court declared internet access a fundamental right under Article 19.
Tharoor-led panel which was reconstituted in October this year retaining him as chairperson recommended to undertake a study to assess the economic impact of internet shutdown saying, “India lost 2.8 billion US dollars in 2020 to internet shutdowns.”
It said, “a thorough study should be conducted by the DoT/MHA so as to assess the impact of internet shutdown on economy and also find out its effectiveness in dealing with Public Emergency and Public Safety.”
According to existing laws, public emergency and public safety are the only grounds on which internet shutdown can be imposed.
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The panel said internet shutdowns should not be taken too frequently as matter of recourse since internet is indispensable to ordinary citizens in their daily lives, and vital for such matters as examination enrolment, tourism, and online enterprise.
Raising concern over the lack of a uniform policy for enforcing internet shutdown, the panel said there was “no clear-cut definition of what constitutes public emergency and public safety”.
It said, “State governments are exercising their own judgment to decide the merits of the situation to impose internet shutdown.”
The report highlighted that “lack of stipulated guidelines and safety measures gives a lever to state governments to resort to telecom shutdown on the slightest pretext of maintaining law and order and there is a need to follow the laid down procedure by states/UTs to avoid internet shutdowns in unwarranted situations”.
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The committee recommended that the government should take issue a uniform set of SOP (standard operating procedures) and guidelines to be followed by all states and Union Territories.
The panel said it was “not satisfied” with Union home ministry and the telecom department’s reply that there was no record of official data on internet shutdowns. The parliamentary committee said it “strongly recommended” that the government should establish a mechanism at the earliest to maintain a centralised database of all internet shutdown orders in the country.
It said the database should have information on internet shutdowns including the number of times internet was suspended, the reasons for the decision, duration of suspension of internet and also whether it was ordered by resorting to Section 144 of CrPC.
The panel said all this information should be put out in the public domain to improve transparency in matters of internet suspension.
The parliamentary committee said instead of shutting down internet to deal with a public emergency or public safety situation, the government “can explore the option of banning of selective services, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, etc. instead of banning the internet as a whole.”
This will allow financial services, health, education and various other services to continue to operate for business normally minimizing inconvenience and suffering to the general public, it said.
The panel said such selective banning of services would also help in controlling spreading of misinformation during unrest.
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