Prelims level : Governance – Policies. Mains level : GS-II Government Policies and Interventions for Development in Various Sectors and Issues Arising out of their design and implementation.
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Why in News?

  • Supreme Court has recently declared that the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to carry on trade or business using the Internet are constitutionally protected. This judgment came in the backdrop of the five-month-long Internet shutdown in Kashmir.

What did the SC order?

  • SC directed the government to review orderssuspending Internet services in the erstwhile State instantly and held that any order suspending the Internet found to violate the law should be revoked at once.
  • The Court also asked Home Ministry for justification and reason for internet shutdown and whether the action was proportionate to the imminent threat to law and order.
  • The Court said that expression through the Internet has gained contemporary relevance and is one of the major means of information diffusion and laid out essential guidelines that Internet shutdowns cannot be Arbitrary and can be challenged in court of law.
  • The Court also instructed the government to consider restoring government websites, localised/limited e-banking facilities, hospital services and other essential services in areas in the Union Territory, where it was otherwise not thinking to do so immediately.

Legal Framework in India 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 suspension of Internet services.
  • The government in 2017 notified Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Service) Rules, 2017under Telegraph Act to suspend internet.
  • Before 2017, Internet suspension orders were issued underSection 144 of PC, which empowers a district magistrate, a sub-divisional magistrate or any other executive magistrate to issue orders to prevent and address urgent cases of apprehended danger or if they believe immediate prevention or speedy remedy is desirable to control the situation.

Does the Government still use section 144 of Cr.PC. for internet shutdown?

  • Despite the 2017 rules, the government has often used the broad powers under Section 144 to shutdown internet.
  • Amid protest in the country against Citizenship Amendment Act, District Magistrates are using section 144 in many districts for temporary suspension of internet.
  • However, no order passed under Section 144 can remain in force for more than two months from the date of the order, unless the state government considers it necessary. Even then, the total period cannot extend to more than six months.
  • The court recognised that Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Service) Rules, 2017 are the only procedureto be followed to suspend Internet services in the occurrence of a “public emergency” or for it to be “in the interest of public safety”.

About Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules, 2017

  • As per 2017 Rules, the competent authorityto issue an order under the Suspension Rules are:
    • In ordinary circumstances, would be the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
    • By the Secretary to the State Government in-charge of the Home Department in the case of a State Government,
    • And in unavoidable circumstances, where obtaining of prior direction is not feasible, such order may be issued by an officer, not below the rank of a Joint Secretary to the Government of India, who has been duly authorised by the Union Home Secretary or the State Home Secretary.
  • If the order for suspension of telecom services has been issued by the officer authorised by the Union Home Secretary or the State Home Secretary, then such order must be confirmed by the competent authority within 24 hours of issuing such order.
  • If the order is not confirmed within 24 hours by the competent authority, then the order shall cease to exist.  The orders to suspend internet shall contain reasons for such direction and a copy of such order shall be forwarded to the concerned Review Committee latest by next working day.
  • The Central Government or the State Governments shall constitute a Review Committee. The Review Committee shall meet within five working days of issue of directions for suspension of services due to public emergency or public safety and record its findings whether the directions issued were as per rules and laws or whether they were arbitrary.
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