India's Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology has slammed state governments' use of internet shutdowns.
A report [PDF] on "Suspension of telecom services/Internet and its impact" finds that while shutdowns are legal, they are being used indiscriminately.
The report notes that Indian law allows internet shutdowns on grounds of "Public Emergency and Public Safety," but the document also points out that "no parameters have been laid down to decide the merit or justice of the telecom/internet shutdowns".
As a result many shutdowns have been ordered after what the document describes as "subjective assessments" by local officials, who did not identify genuine emergencies but instead used shutdowns "for routine policing and even administrative purposes, such as preventing cheating in exams to defusing local crime".
The report offers the following assessment of the impact of such decisions:
Suspension Rules have been grossly misused leading to huge economic loss and also causing untold suffering to the public, as well as severe reputational damage to the country.
Even shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir – where shutdowns have been used for national security purposes during the ongoing dispute with neighboring Pakistan over the region – were felt to be too blunt an instrument.
"The Committee hope that the Government can devise less sweeping methods to intercept terrorist communications in order to avoid recourse to methods that have a disproportionate impact on innocent citizens," the report states.
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Another issue the document raises is whether shutdowns are effective – and the fact that's hard to assess because records of shutdowns and their impact have not been kept. Nor has any work been done to compare the kind of events shutdowns aim to prevent – large-scale protests that turn violent – with similar events before the advent of mobile phones.
The Committee wants Delhi to redefine the circumstances under which shutdowns are permissible, and to designate which officials are allowed to request or order them.
Restricting access to specific services – Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram are named in the document – is also suggested to achieve the stated aim of shutdowns without the wider impacts on the rest of the internet and telecoms networks.
The report's criticisms target India's central and state governments alike, so plenty of politicians and regulators have much to ponder.
Another thing they may wish to consider is that shutdowns appear not to have stopped protests achieving their policy goals. Numerous comms blackouts were imposed on events protesting India's agricultural reform laws, but the government last month announced they would be repealed, and commenced a new consultation process to redraft laws that sparked protests. ®