India is now global capital of internet shutdowns

Hyderabad (India), December 20, 2019 (PPI-OT): India has had over 350 cases of internet shutdown since 2014, the most in the world. This number peaked at 134 last year. This year, until the evening of December 19, there have been 95, most notably in Kashmir. Indian occupied Jammu and Kashmir has the distinction of having two of the three longest shutdowns in the country’s history. The first, 136 days and counting, has been in place since August 4, when Article 370 was abrogated for the state.

The total communication blockade saw the restrictions in overall internet and phone communication. Though the ban on landlines has been lifted, the blockade of mobile internet is still in place. The second-longest shutdown was in Kashmir from July 2016 after the killing of Burhan Wani. Mobile internet services were suspended for 133 days. While post-paid internet users could start accessing the internet on November 2016, prepaid users were allowed only in January 2017. The third-longest was in Darjeeling, for 100 days from June 18, 2017. It was imposed due to the Gorkhaland agitation.

Alarmingly, according to representatives of the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), India, the way the shutdowns are imposed in most cases is not transparent. The public orders issuing for shutdowns are rarely made public. Until 2017, there was no dedicated legal procedure for the imposition of a shutdown. During this period, shutdowns would be imposed under Section 144 of the CrPC which is used to prevent the assembly of more than four persons.

The power to declare a shutdown lay with the district magistrate. In August 2017, New Delhi brought in the Temporary Suspension Rules, which gave the authority to declare shutdowns to the home secretary at the Centre and secretaries of the home department in the states. Mr Prashanth Suganthan, volunteer legal director at SLFC, said that governments rarely made the orders public.

“These orders are supposed to be published by government authorities. Instead, they are imposed in an opaque way,” he said. Mr Suganthan said SFLC has tried to the RTI way, by asking various governments to furnish order copies. “So far, we had some success only in Rajasthan. We are struggling with other states,” he said.

The Temporary Suspension Rules, 2017 also require New Delhi or the state government to constitute review committees with senior officials including the Cabinet Secretary at the Centre and Chief Secretary at the state. This committee is supposed to meet five days after the order of suspension of services is issued to examine whether the order was passed in accordance to the Rules.

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