Internet shutdown and the right to Freedom of Speech and Expression.

The Internet and social media have gradually gained importance as a source of dissent and activism in recent political protests. It includes the role of both, dialogue and mobilization and has a considerable influence on citizen participation. It has become a new aspect of contemporary political protests. It is also a virtual medium for people to form associations and is a right enshrined in Article 19 (1)(c). Internet shutdowns are detrimental to a healthy democracy and implicate the Freedom of Speech and even the right to protest.

Suspension of the Internet detaches the people affected by it and creates fear among them. Simultaneously it cuts off any live coverage from protests that are taking place. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee passed a resolution calling states to desist and refrain from measures to intentionally prevent, or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online, including shutting down the internet or part of it at any time, particularly at times where access to information is critical, such as during an election, or in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. 

India has had the highest number of internet shutdowns imposed by state and national governments. Kashmir has faced the longest internet shutdown instituted by a democracy. Despite the internet access restoration, social media was off-limits, along with many other sites. India has repeatedly used internet shutdowns to quash dissent. One such case took place in Manipur. Due to protests and agitations, internet services were interrupted. In Paojel Chaoba v. the State of Manipur, the court acknowledged the importance of the internet by stating that it is an undeniable fact that mobile internet/data services have become part and parcel of everyday life of the citizens of this country, irrespective of location and residence and as such, suspension of mobile internet even for a day causes immense inconvenience apart from causing huge dislocation to everyday transactions carried out by the individuals and organisations across the country.

During the widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA), internet services were stopped to repress protests that were taking place in the state of Assam. The court in Banashree Gogoi v. Union of India held that the citizen’s dependence on internet services which on suspension has virtually resulted in disruption in the lives of the residents, by stating this the court acknowledged that suspension amounts to bringing life to a halt. The court also held that suspensions can only happen under necessary situations. It was not the case in the state and suspending internet connection was used as a mechanism to add disruptions to protests. 

In Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, it was held that there should not be an excessive burden on free speech even if a complete prohibition is imposed, and the government has to justify the imposition of such prohibition and explain as to why lesser alternatives would be inadequate. It was also held that all orders under S.144 of the CrPC have to be published and that indefinite suspension of the internet is not permissible. The court was informed by the government that internet access was restored, however, it was suspended. This led to a lengthy judgement regarding the problem of internet shutdowns.

Although the right to protest is maintained in the constitution, it can be inferred from the above three case laws, that the state and central government have continued to impose an internet shutdown which may not be justified or necessary. In these cases, the suspension was due to protests, despite there being no imminent danger posed by the protestors. It is a violation of the right to expression and is also used to dissuade protests and silence the voice of dissent. In cases with serious security threats, its validity will have to be determined by examining if a clear danger exists, that could justify the suspension.

REFERENCES:

  1. Article19.org. 2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.article19.org/data/files/Internet_Statement_Adopted.pdf> 
  2. Gettleman, J., Goel, V. and Abi-habib, M., 2021. India Adopts the Tactic of Authoritarians: Shutting Down the Internet (Published 2019). [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/17/world/asia/india-internet-modi-protests.html>
  3.  Paojel Chaoba v. the State of Manipur (2018) PIL 47/2018.
  4. Banashree Gogoi v. Union of India & Ors. (2019) PIL 78/2019.
  5. Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India & Ors (2019) SCC Online SC 1725.

Aishwarya Says:

I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.

If you are interested in participating in the same, do let me know.

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In the year 2021, we wrote about 1000 Inspirational Women In India, in the year 2022, we would be featuring 5000 Start Up Stories.

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