India is at the third position in a list with some of the most ‘democratic’ countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc. Internet shutdowns can have some serious free speech and free association implications, which is why it is necessary to have clear and precise regulations to ensure that this power is not used arbitrarily and unreasonably.
The internet has grown from being just a communication medium to becoming a marketplace, an entertainment source, a news centre, and much more. At any given moment, there are thousands of gigabytes of information travelling across the planet. But all of this comes to a standstill when the internet shuts down. An internet shutdown is a government-enforced blanket restriction on the use of internet in a region for a particular period of time. The reasons vary from a law and order situation to a dignitary visiting the place. There is a requirement for an analysis into whether such shutdowns can be justified, even on the direst of grounds.
These shutdowns can be initiated with little effort, as far as the authorities are concerned, because the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) do not hesitate to follow government ‘directives’. The justifications provided by them can range from being possibly reasonable to being absurd. For example, in February, the Gujarat government blocked mobile internet services across the state because the Gujarat State Subsidiary Selection Board was conducting exams to recruit revenue accountants. This was done given the “sensitive nature of the exam” and that it was “necessary to do so to prevent misuse of mobile phones.” This step is very clearly disproportional in terms of actions and effects. There are other methods through which the exam officials can stop malpractice in exams, with stopping mobile internet over the entire state being not only inefficient, but also highly disruptive to the general populace. This distinction as to whether the step is proportional gets complicated when the government justifies shutting down the internet on grounds of law and order situations or national security.