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India’s Supreme Court demands government detail internet shutdown rules

There may not be any, which is the point of the lawsuit

India’s Supreme Court has ordered the nation’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to disclose whether it has a standard protocol for ordering or allowing internet shutdowns.

The order [PDF] was made after India’s Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) filed a lawsuit against the state of Arunachal Pradesh over its imposition of an internet blackout coinciding with important exams. Indian cities and states often implement such blackouts to deter cheating in the famously competitive exams for entrance to some local universities.

Critics such as the SFLC point out that such bans cause considerable inconvenience and economic harm and should not be imposed frivolously.

They also point to a 2021 report by India’s Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology that found internet blackouts are being imposed for purposes beyond allowed reasons such as "Public Emergency and Public Safety," and found that "no parameters have been laid down to decide the merit or justice of the telecom/internet shutdowns".

Which is where things get interesting because shutdowns have also been used ahead of mass protests on grounds that making it harder for people to organise reduces the chance of violence.

Yet protests against one tech-related initiative – India’s plan to require farmers to gather and submit data about their properties - saw the policy reversed after India’s government realised persistence would create an electoral backlash that could threaten its power. Some of those protests did, however, turn violent.

India also imposed long internet blackouts in Kashmir, a majority Muslim state, on grounds of suppressing violent insurrection.

The SFLC’s founder, lawyer Mishi Choudhary, welcomed the decision.

“We cannot have the world's leading companies be run by Indians while we continue shutting down the Internet,” she said. “We hope the courts will ensure our right to the internet is respected as no rights can be negotiated without access.”

Just how having the likes of Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, and Raghu Raghuram run Microsoft, Alphabet and VMWare makes internet shutdowns unsustainable was not explained. All three are still in their jobs, at the time of writing, so Choudhary’s point is a little obscure.

The Supreme Court order requires the Ministry to reveal if it has protocols for shutdowns and “if so, to what extent and how said Protocol is adhered to and implemented.”

The Ministry has three weeks to produce that information.

If no protocol exists, India’s central government can legislate one … in addition to the data protection bill it scrapped after three years of work and is now redrafting, and the mooted changes to laws that govern how social media is held responsible for user-generated content. ®

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