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Internet Shutdowns in India

Internet Shutdowns

Residents of Manipur have been grappling with limited and obstructed internet access for nearly three months since the government imposed a shutdown. Although the authorities granted some conditional access to specific online services, the situation persists. A recent report by Access Now and the Keep It On coalition revealed that India led with 84 internet shutdowns in 2022, marking the fifth consecutive year at the top. The Internet Shutdown Tracker, maintained by the Software Freedom Law Centre, disclosed a total of 665 shutdowns in India since 2012, with over 50% occurring since 2019.

Causes of Internet Shutdowns

Keeping the Peace: Sometimes, internet shutdowns happen to maintain order during times of unrest, protests, or tension in communities. Authorities do this to stop the spread of false information, prevent organized protests, and manage potential violence.

National Security Measures: Internet shutdowns can be enforced for national security reasons, like preventing terrorism, dealing with potential threats, or ensuring secrecy during critical operations.

Fair Exams: During important exams, internet services might be paused to stop cheating and the leaking of exam questions.

Tackling Hate Speech and Fake News: Governments might order internet shutdowns to handle hate speech, rumors, and fake news that could lead to violence or social unrest.

Ensuring Public Safety: During natural disasters or emergencies, shutdowns might be put in place to control communication channels and prevent panic or the spread of false information.

Social Media Oversight: Temporarily shutting down specific social media platforms or apps could be aimed at controlling the flow of information during sensitive events or addressing privacy and security concerns.

Content Control: Internet shutdowns can also be used to stop the circulation of specific content, such as videos or images that are considered harmful or objectionable.

Managing Protests and Dissent: At times, internet shutdowns are imposed to discourage dissent and prevent the coordination of protests or opposition against the government.

Laws Governing Internet Shutdowns in India

Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 (Section 5(2)):

  • This law lets the Union or State Home Secretary decide to suspend telegraph services, including the internet, during a public emergency or for public safety.
  • The order must be reviewed by a committee within five days, and it can’t last more than 15 days.
  • In urgent cases, a high-ranking officer, authorized by the Home Secretary, can issue the order.

Code of Criminal Procedure (Section 144):

  • This section gives powers to district magistrates or other authorized executives to issue orders preventing nuisances or disturbances of public peace.
  • These orders can include suspending internet services in a specific area for a set period.

Information Technology Act, 2000 (Section 69A):

  • According to this section, the central government can block access to internet information that it believes threatens India’s sovereignty, integrity, defense, security, or friendly relations, or public order, decency, or incitement of any offense.
  • It’s important to note that this applies to blocking specific websites or content, not shutting down the entire internet.

Impacts of Internet Shutdowns

Impact on Freedom of Expression and Information:

  • Shutting down the internet goes against the right to free expression and information guaranteed by India’s Constitution (Article 19(1)(a)) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19).
  • It stops people from sharing and accessing information, expressing opinions, and participating in online discussions, hindering accountability.

Economic Consequences:

  • Internet shutdowns have tangible economic costs affecting individuals and the country.
  • They lead to economic losses and job cuts, especially for those relying on online platforms for income.
  • Disruptions in digital payments, e-commerce, education, and healthcare sectors add to the economic impact.

Specific Cases:

  • The 2019 six-month communication blockade in Kashmir resulted in over five lakh job losses, severely affecting businesses.
  • In 2021, shutdowns in Rajasthan for just over a month caused losses amounting to Rs 800 crore.

Countrywide Impact:

  • In 2022, internet shutdowns across India led to economic losses exceeding Rs 1,500 crore.
  • By the first half of 2023 alone, estimated losses from internet shutdowns reached Rs 2,091 crore, indicating a worsening financial situation.

Deepening Digital Divide:

  • Internet shutdowns widen the gap between those with reliable internet access and those without.
  • This contradicts the government’s vision of Digital India, aiming to empower citizens through digital services.

Anuradha Bhasin v Union of India (2020):

  • The Supreme Court made a big decision in this case, saying that our right to speak freely and do business online is protected by the Constitution of India.
  • They also said that if the government wants to shut down the internet, it has to have a good reason, and it can’t be a drastic measure. The shutdown should be the last resort, and it should be the minimum necessary to solve the problem.
  • The court made rules to make sure that internet shutdowns don’t last forever. If the government decides to stop the internet, they have to tell everyone why, and the decision can be reviewed by a judge. This decision set a strong example for judging if an internet shutdown is legal and fair.

Foundation for Media Professionals v. Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (2020):

  • The Supreme Court told the government in Jammu and Kashmir to check all the rules they had on the internet. They said that people have a right to access the internet, and the government should respect that right.

Internet Freedom Foundation v. Union of India (2020):

  • The Supreme Court listened to a case from the Internet Freedom Foundation. They were not happy with the government stopping the internet in different places, especially during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
  • The court told the government to explain why they were stopping the internet and to respond to the concerns raised by the Internet Freedom Foundation.

Arguments For:

  1. Preventing Hate Speech and Fake News:
    • The internet sometimes spreads hatred against different groups. Stopping the internet can help counter this and prevent false information.
    • Shutdowns can be a tool to tackle xenophobia and misinformation.
  2. Maintaining Law and Order:
    • Authorities can use internet shutdowns as a last resort during protests to stop messages that incite violence and chaos.
  3. Avoiding Anarchy:
    • In extreme cases, shutting down the internet may be necessary to restore calm and order when social media causes disruption and confusion.

Arguments Against:

  1. Violating Human Rights:
    • The Kerala High Court recognizes internet access as a fundamental right, linked to privacy and education under the Constitution.
    • Shutdowns infringe on these rights, limiting communication, expression, learning, and information access.
  2. Imposing Social Costs:
    • Shutdowns affect essential services like education and health, creating a digital divide, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
    • They contribute to disparities in education and hinder public services.
  3. Failing to Achieve the Objective:
    • There’s no clear evidence that internet shutdowns restore public order; instead, they can breed resentment and frustration.
  4. Creating Social Chaos:
    • Internet shutdowns result in a lack of information, causing panic and hampering efforts of civil society, media, and human rights defenders to monitor and report on situations.


While shutdowns are sometimes necessary, recent ones by the Central government seem hard to justify given their costs and inconveniences. As the world becomes more connected, finding a balance between civil liberties and security becomes trickier.

Governments should explore alternatives to digital curbs and consider internet bans as a last resort with well-defined protocols. Simultaneously, they must establish effective emergency response systems for vulnerable populations.

Empowering law enforcement with innovative cyber divisions could provide alternatives to mass surveillance and communication interceptors, though ethical concerns persist. In democracies, there’s a need for modern, independent institutions with the authority to develop frameworks addressing these challenges without resorting to excessive state measures.

Read Also: Regulation of Deepfakes Technology

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