On March 17, the Punjab police launched a massive hunt for Amritpal Singh, the separatist leader from Punjab. He recently revived a call for an independent state for Sikhs called “Khalistan”. This prompted violent reactions from his supporters in the UK who vandalised the Indian High Commission in London. Following this, the government of Punjab instituted several preventive measures fearing any threats to public security and order. The suspension of Internet and telecommunication services across the state was one of the measures the state government took to prevent the spread of any misinformation and consequent violence. Initially mandated for 24 hours, the internet shutdown order was extended for 3 more days. It was then lifted in some parts of Punjab on March 23.
India has consistently recorded the most number of internet shutdowns globally so this current shutdown is not uncommon. In this context, we thought we would break down what Indian laws say about the suspension and censorship of the Internet.
Laws enabling interception of Internet and telecommunication services
Indian Telegraph Act, 1885
Section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 empowers the Central and state governments to temporarily take possession of any Internet based or telecommunications service channels or devices, if they are satisfied that such steps are necessary to prevent any violence or disturbance of public order. It also enables the government to suspend such services on grounds of security of the State.
Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 (“ Rules”)
Rule 2 of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules authorises the Secretary to the Government of India in the Ministry of Home Affairs or the Secretary to the State in the Home Department of the concerned state to issue orders suspending the telecom services in their respective jurisdiction.
The “Rules” list certain mandatory procedures to be followed while passing any telecom suspension orders like constituting a Review Committee and conveying the order to the Review Committee by the next working day.
Recently, an amendment to the Rules was introduced which established that no order for telecom suspension for over 15 days can be issued.
Section 144, Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (CrPC)
According to section 144 of the CrPC, the District Magistrate or a competent Executive Magistrate can pass an order to stop someone or a group of people from doing certain acts or take decisions about any of their possessions to prevent any threat to public tranquillity.
Suspension of internet and other telecom services also falls under this section.
Section 69A, Information Technology Act, 2000
Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 allows the Government or any authorised agent of the government to block or restrict public access to any information which is generated or transmitted through any computer.
What courts have said about Internet shutdowns in India
Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, 2020
In this case, the Supreme Court of India observed that the Internet is a channel to exercise our fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression as well as the freedom to practise any profession. So, any order to suspend the Internet must fulfil a three-pronged test:
Proportionality : The suspension orders must be proportionate to the threat at hand. It can only be passed for a legitimate aim after evaluating all other options in the least restrictive manner.
Legality : There must be an appropriate legal framework to authorise the passing of such orders.
Necessary: Any order passed must be necessary for maintenance of public order and security due to the existence of a tangible or immediate threat.
The judgement also put some procedural safeguards like proactive publication of any Internet suspension order, specification of a time limit in such orders and finally, prohibiting any indefinite suspension of Internet.
Foundation of Media Professionals v. Union of Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, 2020
In this case, the Supreme Court of India held that any restriction of access to the Internet impacts the freedom of expression, health, education and business. So, any blanket order of suspension of the Internet can only be issued after balancing the need for it with the prevailing circumstances of violence or danger to national security.
What happens next in Punjab?
Internet services have been restored partially in Punjab except in Ferozpur, Tarn Taran, Sangrur and Moga districts. If you’re affected by the Internet shutdown and observe that any of the legal or procedural safeguards have been violated by the order, you can approach the Home Department of Punjab citing your grievances and pointing out the inconsistencies in the suspension orders.