RTI Shows Rajasthan Flouted Internet Shutdown Rules
An RTI has highlighted serious procedural lapses in how shutdowns were carried out without regard to due process.
On the eve of Assembly election results in Rajasthan, the verdict on one aspect of the state’s administration is clear – its internet governance has declined from bad to worse.
That Rajasthan has ordered a whopping 56 shutdowns since 2015 including 30 in 2018 alone, has pointed towards indiscretion in curbing access to internet in the state.
Now, an RTI has highlighted serious procedural lapses in how shutdowns were carried out without regard to due process.
The information, sought by Software Freedom Law Centre India (SFLC India) – which maintains the Internet Shutdown Tracker – has revealed that of the 40 times that Rajasthan suspended the internet between August 2017 and May 2018, it had held only 11 review committee meetings, a mandatory procedure to be followed under The Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017.
The RTI has not only exposed the lack of proper reviews of shutdowns, many of which have been ordered on grounds as frivolous as preventing cheating in examinations, but the information on shutdowns themselves had been continuously denied and had to be litigated upon to be accessed.
If India wears the ignominious crown as the country with the most shutdowns in the world, then Rajasthan is its crown jewel. While India has already hit the kill switch 130 times in 2018, Rajasthan is second only to Jammu & Kashmir among the states in cutting off access to the internet from its citizens.
What is a Shutdown ?
Access Now, a global non-profit advocating for digital rights, defines internet shutdowns as “an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.”
Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor had written to the Parliamentary Committee on Subordinate Legislation headed by D K Gandhi on 28 November, urging it to undertake a thorough review of the shutdown rules.
“Internet shutdown rules are yet another example of how this government abrogates further power to itself, without any form of accountability.”Shashi Tharoor to The Quint
Due Process Ignored, Shows RTI
The Telecom Suspension Rules were passed in August 2017. Among the most important provision for procedural safeguards in the rules is the constitution of a Review Committee to look into a shutdown order and record its findings. Section 5 of the Rules specified the review committee as following:
- The Committee shall comprise three members – the cabinet secretary (chairman); secretary to the Government of India In-charge, Legal Affairs; secretary to the Government, Department of Telecommunications.
- The committee has to meet within five days from the date of suspension order.
- It has to review the shutdown and whether it was in accordance with section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 which authorises for suspension of communication to protect the “sovereignty”, “security” and “public order” and prevent ‘incitement” to an offence in the country.
Therefore, any shutdown order must be followed by a mandatory review meeting. “It can be gathered from our existing data and the RTI responses that there have been 40 instances of Internet shutdowns across all of Rajasthan between 8 August, 2017 and 1 May, 2018. Of these, at least 29 instances of Internet shutdowns in Rajasthan did not have a review committee meeting during the eight months in question” an SFLC India spokesperson told The Quint.
In the absence of meetings, there is no way of determining whether the shutdowns were justified or whether the state executive adhered to procedures as laid down under the rules.
The Struggle for Information
The Rajasthan Home Department refused to entertain SFLC India’s request to furnish details of the number of review committee meetings and copies of the meetings citing them as classified information because of national security reasons.
“The Home Department refused to furnish any information vis-a-vis the number of review committee meetings and copies of minutes of these meetings. They submitted that the information requested was classified information related to the security of the nation and hence was exempted from being shared under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005.”Software Freedom Law Centre India
The denial of information under the RTI Act can be challenged further through an appeal to the first appellate authority. However, SFLC India’s first appeal was turned down as well.
“Not only did the First Appellate Authority fail to specify the substantial reason against which such a rejection may be preferred, it also failed to explain and provide reasons as to how the disclosure of sought information affects the security of state,” an SFLC India spokesperson said.
SFLC India made a second appeal to the State Information Commission, which was admitted and heard. Dismissing the orders of the first appellate authority, the Commission directed the Home Department to furnish all the information that does not affect the security of the state.
It was only then, after more than seven months of information seeking, that the Home Department revealed that 11 review meetings had taken place and furnished the minutes of the meetings of six of those.
Moreover, the minutes of the meetings do not actually provide the minutes of the meetings. All it says is that it finds “the orders to be appropriate” for the “purpose of keeping public safety and to maintain law and order of the area and maintain harmony amongst the people of India.”
Bordering on Absurd: Rajasthan’s Obsession with Shutdowns
Rajasthan has had a dubious history with internet shutdowns. It had shut down the internet in February and July 2018 to prevent cheating during the Teacher’s Eligibility Examinations and Constable Recruitment Examinations respectively. It had also ordered a pre-emptive shutdown during a peaceful farmers’ march in Sikar District in September 2017.
Problem of Internet Shutdown Rules
The core issue, however, lies with the problematic shutdown rules. On 7 August 2017, the Ministry of Communications issued the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules without any civil society participation or consultation. This in itself was a failure to honour a multi-stakeholder commitment of involving non-government stakeholders in matters of internet policy.
Moreover, on 2 April 2018, the government had ordered a shutdown in Jalore, Barmer, Sikar, Alwar and Ahore districts under section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and not the new rules.
The Cost of shutdowns
Shashi Tharoor had written to the Parliamentary Committee on Subordinate Legislation headed by D K Gandhi, urging it to undertake a thorough review of the shutdown rules. He drew attention to a host of concerns with the rules and with shutdown in general.
“Digital Transactions depend on stable internet services; so by arbitrarily disrupting these services, Digital India can never be realised. While there are economic costs involved in using such powers, my primary concern is in relations to the threat it poses to our fundamental rights.”Shashi Tharoor to The Quint
Across the world, as in India, internet shutdowns have been criticised for a number of reasons:
- Human Rights: Denying access to the internet amounts to censorship and a violation of freedom of speech by restricting access to freely seek, receive and disseminate information and opinion.
- Economic: According to a report by Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), India lost Rs 22,154 crores between 2012 and 2017 owing to shutdowns.
- Social: The Internet Freedom Foundation had also pointed out in a tweet on 13 August that at the ground level, an offline environment can deny people access to food and livelihood. ‘Due to imposition of POS (point of sale) authentication for rations, such internet shutdowns deprive people of food.’
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