Governments across the world often impose Internet Shutdowns as a means to order blanket ban on Internet services in an area for a duration. These blanket bans are imposed for a variety of reasons ranging from prevention of spread of misinformation to prevention of cheating in examination.
We at SFLC.in have been tracking incidents of Internet shutdowns across India in an attempt to draw attention towards the number and frequency of shutdowns. This data is made publicly available in the form of an interactive Internet Shutdown Tracker hosted on our dedicated website www.internetshutdowns.in, which also features additional resources on the topic.
On the basis of our tracker, we can safely state that India has seen an alarming increase in the number and frequency of shutdowns. Whereas in 2012 we recorded only 3 shutdowns across India, while as of September 2018 we have already recorded 109 shutdowns in 9 months across the nation. Another notable takeaway is that India has witnessed the highest number of Internet shutdowns in the entire world.
At present, there is no obligation in India on Telecom Service Providers or State Home Departments to inform users about Internet Shutdowns. In the absence of any reliable means to gain access to Internet shutdown orders issued by various Government agents, most of the data collected by our tacker is based on media reports (online and print). We realize that relying solely on media reports is not a foolproof method of tracking shutdowns. With this in mind, when we launched a dedicated website for our Internet shutdowns project, we did so with a new citizen reportage mechanism, i.e. a mechanism that allows citizens to bring instances of shutdowns to our attention. We later expanded our citizen reportage tools to give people the ability to provide inputs on how shutdowns affected them and their communities. Nevertheless, most of the data recorded by our tracker continues to be secondary, which means that it is entirely possible for shutdowns that are not reported by the media or affected citizens to be absent from the tracker.
As per the Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency and Public Safety) Rules, 2017 – the current enabling legislation for Internet shutdowns – the ‘competent authority’ which may issue directions to suspend telecom services are: the Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs or the Secretary to the State Government in-charge of the Home Department, in cases of Central Government or State Government respectively. In order to get a sense of the true extent of unreported shutdowns (if any), we filed an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005 to various State Home Departments across India. The RTI Application was filed asking the following question among others: “what is the exact number of Internet Shutdowns that were ordered in Rajasthan during 07.08.2017 to 01.05.2018?”. This time-frame was chosen because the Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency and Public Safety) Rules, 2017 was enacted on August 8, 2017, and there was a good chance that consolidated data on shutdowns imposed under the Rules would be available with Central and State Home Departments.
We received information from district level departments of Rajasthan in response to the RTI application filed by us. The responses received from the Rajasthan Government have been collated and the unreported shutdowns have been added on tracker. On the basis of those responses, we found that there were at least 26 unreported instances of Internet shutdowns in Rajasthan alone during the eight-odd months in question. In July we published a detailed blogpost about the responses from Rajasthan to our RTI applications.
However, we have not received required information from every state. Some states, including Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, have dismissed and returned our applications. The Home Department of the Government of Madhya Pradesh dismissed our application stating that the Information that has been requested through the RTI application falls within the ambit of Home Department C Wing which has been exempted from the RTI responses vide Notification No. F. 11-39-2005-I-9-RTI. On the other hand, the Home Department of Uttar Pradesh replied stating that our application had been forwarded to Police Head Office of Lucknow, UP to furnish the details in question to us. The Police Department returned the application submitting that the information sought requires technical support which they lack, therefore they will be unable to provide us the required information.
Scanned copies of responses that we have received as replies from the RTI applications filed in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh: