Right to Internet
Baljit Dhaka
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Right to Internet

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Right to Internet

Why in the news?

On January 10, 2020, the Supreme Court of India said that the Right of access to the internet is a fundamental right. 

The SC declared that the fundamental right of speech and expression and the right to carry on trade or business using the Internet are constitutionally protected. 

This came in the backdrop of the five-month-long Internet shutdown in Kashmir. The Court had asked the administration of Jammu and Kashmir to review the curbs on the internet in a week.

Implications of the SC Verdict

The verdict has laid down a framework of how the Internet can be suspended, and what rights and legal resources a citizen has when it is suspended.

What was the issue?

Many parts of Jammu and Kashmir have been under lockdown for five months now – with no internet and restrictions on movement. The internet shutdown in Kashmir is the longest in any democracy in the world.

The Union government decided to impose restrictions on the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir after the August 5 revocation of provisions of Article 370, giving special status to the state.

Criticisms of Internet shutdown in J&K

Restrictions have virtually abrogated the fundamental rights and paralyzed the lives of seven million people in the region.

These restrictions have been imposed under the garb of public tranquillity, public order, and national security, but national security does not appear in the order imposing Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in the region.

The shutdown of internet services has severe consequences on business, trade, and heavily affect the common people in the region.

India also tops the list of Internet shutdowns globally. According to the Software Freedom Law Center’s tracker, there have been 381 shutdowns since 2012, 106 of which were in 2019.

Right to internet Access in other countries

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the citizens’ right to privacy and protects it from the State’s unreasonable intrusions.

In the United Kingdom, the Human Rights Act protects privacy, family life, home, and communications. This entails respect for the right to uninterrupted and uncensored communication with others.

In 2016, the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) released a resolution that condemned the disruption of internet access by the government. 

Before passing the resolution UN quoted that there were 15 internet shutdowns in 2015 and 20 in 2017. The UN referred to the internet ban in Turkey after terrorist attacks, internet shut down in India after local protests, and internet blockage in Algeria.

What procedure does the government follow to suspend Internet services?

The Information Technology Act, 2000, the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), 1973, and the Telegraph Act, 1885 are the three laws that deal with the suspension of Internet services.

But before 2017, Internet suspension orders were issued under section 14 of the CrPC.

In 2017, the central government notified the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Service) Rules under the Telegraph Act to govern suspension of the Internet. 

These Rules derive their powers from Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, which talks about the interception of messages in the “interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India”.

Despite the 2017 rules, the government has often used the broad powers under Section 144.

So, what does the judgment say on the rules to be followed?

The court recognized that the 2017 Rules are the only procedure to be followed to suspend Internet services in the occurrence of a “public emergency” or for it to be “in the interest of public safety”.

The verdict reiterated that the competent authority to issue an order under the Suspension Rules, in ordinary circumstances, would be the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The Rules also say that in case the confirmation does not come from a competent authority, the orders shall cease to exist within a period of 24 hours.

Clear reasons for such orders need to be given in writing and need to be forwarded to a Review Committee by the next working day.

The confirmation must not be a mere formality but must indicate the independent application of mind by the competent authority to the order passed by the authorized officer, who must also take into account changed circumstances if any, etc.

Related topics:

Digital Inequality?

Digital services provided by the government and private organizations have led to a new kind of inequality namely digital inequality. Digital inequality is observed because of socio-economic backwardness due to information poverty, lack of infrastructure, and lack of digital literacy.

According to the Deloitte report, ‘Digital India: Unlocking the Trillion Dollar Opportunity’, in mid-2016, digital literacy in India was less than 10%. 

Offering services online has cost and efficiency benefits for the government and also allows citizens to bypass lower-level government bureaucracy. 

However, in the absence of Internet access and digital literacy enabling that access will further widen the gap of digital inequality.

So, digital literacy and internet access is a must to decrease the gap of digital inequality.

Importance of digital literacy

We are moving to a global economy where knowledge of digital processes will transform how people work, collaborate, consume information, and entertain themselves. 

This has been acknowledged in the Sustainable Development Goals as well as by the Indian government and has led to the Digital India mission.  

Offering services online has cost and efficiency benefits for the government and also allows citizens to bypass lower-level government bureaucracy.

It increases the accountability and transparency of the government.

It leads to better public service delivery.

It increases the participation of citizenry into politics, etc.

It will also augment the government’s efforts to provide better education, health, and employment opportunities.

It also helps in socio-cultural mobilization in Indian society.

Digital literacy allows people to access information and services, collaborate, and navigate socio-cultural networks. In fact, the definition of literacy today must include the ability to access and act upon resources and information found online.