Burn the house to roast the pig.
This pithy phrase aptly sums up the Rajasthan government’s attitude towards governing the internet. Starting at midnight on 14 July, internet services shall remain suspended across the entire state on Saturday and Sunday.
But why, you ask?
Because the state needs to conduct its Constable Recruitment Examinations. About 15 lakh candidates are expected to appear for 13,000-odd seats across 664 examination centres.
The Rajasthan government’s love affair with the internet kill switch has meant that the state is behind only Jammu and Kashmir in shutting access to the internet. According to a tracker maintained by the Software Freedom Law Centre, it has suspended broadband and telephone internet services at least 25 times since 2015. This year alone it has been ordered nine times, an average of more than one per month. In 2018, the country has witnessed at least 68 such shutdowns so far and is expected to surpass the 70 shutdowns in 2017.
If India wears the dubious crown of ordering the highest shutdowns in the world, then Rajasthan’s efforts would certainly amount to a crown jewel.
Internet Shutdown Cannot Fix a Broken Process
According to reports, the government will suspend internet services in a 5 Km radius of all the examination centres from 8am to 5pm on both days. Such a move, however, is not unprecedented. A similar blackout was ordered in February, 2018, during the statewide Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for teachers. The state administration justified this move by asserting that the suspension has been ordered to prevent cheating during examinations.
The Rajasthan Police Constable Entrance Examinations, held on 7 March, had been cancelled following reports of cheating. It had surfaced on 14 March that the online examination was hacked by a gang involved in the racket. The answer to a flawed mechanism of conducting online examinations cannot be to suspend internet services altogether.
Doing so amounts to violating human rights and economic rights of citizens who use the platform to access information, conduct business and earn a livelihood.
How can the government order such a drastic measure for an examination?
Well, the answer to this lies in the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017. On 7 August 2017, the Ministry of Communications issued these rules quietly and without any civil society participation. This in itself was a failure to honour a multi-stakeholder approach of involving non-government stakeholders in matters of internet policy.
Although the rules specify who can order an internet shutdown in states, it lays down no specific conditions for ordering such shutdowns. This means that the state government can choose to hit the blackout button on any grounds it deems fit.
In the last year, Rajasthan has ordered pre-emptive shutdowns during a peaceful farmers’ march in Sikar district in September 2017, as well as during a ‘bandh’ organised in April 2018. This lack of clarity provides a convenient window for such questionable orders. The rate at which suspension orders have proliferated across Indian states reveals that the rules have not curbed, but rather legitimised shutdowns.
The Rajasthan government has not just misused the provisions of the Internet Suspension Rules but at times also ignored it. On 2 April, 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 Real Cost of Shutdowns
An internet shutdown results in several adverse consequences and cannot be the default option for an administration. It amounts to a violation of fundamental human rights by restricting access to freely seek, receive and disseminate information and opinions.
In May, 2017, The United Nations had condemned the restrictions on internet in Jammu and Kashmir.
There is a “disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir,” and had the “character of collective punishment,” said David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.
The Internet Freedom Foundation, in a tweet, said that “due to the imposition of POS (point of sale) device authentication for rations (which have their own concerns), such internet shutdowns deprive people of food.”
Moreover, the economic cost of internet shutdowns in 2017 was Rs 6,000 crores. Internet shutdowns with little or no accountability do more harm than good and the trend of ordering the internet to be killed as a first option instead of a last resort incurs more damages than meets the eye.