In a move that would legitimise government imposed internet and telecom blackouts in the country, the Ministry of Communications has issued new rules under the Telegraph Act on August 7 without any public consultation.
According to the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, designated officers of state governments or of the Centre of Joint Secretary rank (or above) can order police officers of SP rank or above to send the order to designated officers of the service provider, reports Bar and Bench.
Medianama reports that according to these rules, the Union Home Secretary can order the State Home Secretary to enforce a shutdown, if it is imposed by the Centre.
However, in case of “unavoidable circumstances” officers (of Joint Secretary rank or above) designated by the Home Ministry can pass such orders but will have to be reviewed by the Union Home Secretary within 24 hours.
The MN report further says that in case of a shutdown imposed by the state government, the order has to be issued by the Secretary in-charge of the Home Department with the exception of “unavoidable circumstances” where a Joint Secretary level officer authorised by the State Home Secretary can issue orders. Such an order will again face the scrutiny of the State Home Secretary within 24 hours.
The new rules also mandate that once an order is issued it has to be sent to the Review Committee which shall meet within the next five working days.
For the state, Review Committees will comprise of the Law Secretary, Secretary to the state government and the Home Secretary, while the Chief Secretary will be the Chairman.
For the Centre, the Review Committee will be made up of the Cabinet Secretary, Secretary to the Government of India In-charge, Legal Affairs; Secretary to the Government, Department of Telecommunications.
However, the Review Committee is not empowered to take any punitive action in case the suspension orders were issued without following the rules.
According to Internetshutdowns.in, India has experienced a total of 42 internet shutdowns in 2017 so far.
Under the current practice, a district magistrate or any other executive magistrate passes an order directing a blackout after the Supreme Court in 2016 upheld the districts and states’ right to ban mobile Internet services to maintain law and order.
The United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights has observed that internet shutdowns violate freedom of expression and act as collective punishment in context of the internet blackouts in Kashmir.
A study estimates that Rs 6,548 crore was lost by Indian companies in three years as a result of internet shutdowns.