SC Asks Centre to File Response Outlining Procedures  for Internet Shutdowns

Internet restriction Law Insider

Aastha Thakur

Published on: September 9, 2022 at 22:27 IST

On Friday, the Supreme Court sent the Union Government a notice requesting a response from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology outlining the procedure for shutting down the internet.

The Software Freedom Law Centre petitioned the court to challenge arbitrary internet shutdowns, and the court responded by issuing the notice. The petitioner referenced internet blackouts that were used in the States of Rajasthan and Assam to stop cheating in public exams. Despite the fact that the Union Government was not a party to the petition, the bench stated that it would only send a notice to the Union Government in order to verify the protocol and compliance with it.

The matter was heard by a bench comprising Chief Justice U.U. Lalit, Justices Ravindra Bhat and P.S. Narasimha. The petitioner prays before the Court to pass directions for ensuring compliance as given in case of Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India (2020) while enforcing internet shutdowns.

Advocate Vrinda Grover, the petitioner’s attorney, claimed right once that the respondent governments’ arbitrary internet shutdowns were being done in an effort to stop students from cheating during various tests.

A declaratory ruling of a broad character would not be helpful in this situation, according to Justice Bhat, who said orally that such violations could be dealt with as they occurred. This is because the governments may merely repeat the violations.

The panel also took note of the petitioners’ prior filings in other High Courts, including the High Courts of Delhi and Calcutta, contesting specific instances of arbitrarily shutting down the internet.

The court discussed the justification provided by the State governments while imposing internet shutdowns.

Orally, CJI Lalit said that having jammers would give the government a sense of proportion, but that placing jammers in every area would be expensive.

The Rajasthani government’s broad directive to shut down the internet in the state was also contested in the appeal. In this regard, CJI Lalit questioned Sr. Adv. Grover as to why the petitioner had not instead filed a case with the High Court of Rajasthan. Grover said that the problem was a widespread occurrence throughout India.

CJI Lalit therefore claimed that at the time, the bench could merely provide notice to the Union Government. The Union Government, however, was not added as a party to the petition. Sr. Adv. Grover promised to submit an amendment including the Union Government as a party.

The bench stated–

“We want to know what exactly is the protocol, even when it is any examination…On oral prayer made by Ms. Vrinda Grover, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology is to be made party and impleaded as Respondent 5.”

“At this stage we issue notice only to Respondent 5 indicating whether there is any standard protocol with respect to the grievance raised by the petitioner and if so to what extent and how the protocol is adhered to. Let response be filed in three weeks. List after four weeks.”

As per the petition, the government are imposing internet restrictions across different areas all over India, under the name of imaginary or fictititous  law and order issues arising out of organization of examinations. It stated that-

“The threat perception in all such cases is majorly flawed as district administrations in various states have been suspending internet services for an entire region for administrative reasons such as to prevent cheating in examinations.”

“On one occasion, internet services were suspended even when high school examinations were being conducted. Such administrative decisions are manifestly arbitrary and wholly disproportionate response, and are impermissible under the Constitution.”

The petition gives examples of arbitrary internet shutdowns happened in past, like in Sept 2021, the entire state had to suffer with internet restrictions because of Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teachers (REET) examinations were being conducted. Similar actions have been taken by states like Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal and others.

The petition highlights the impact it causes on economic activities and the livelihood of millions of citizens, and also denies access to the internet which facilitates various other rights including of communication, information, commerce and expression and speech.

Additionally, the petition asks for guidelines to stop governments and their agencies from abusing their power to impose disproportionate and unjust internet shutdowns in different states across the nation, as well as for the court to develop a set of rules to make sure that internet shutdowns are not unfairly implemented nationwide.

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