In the Era of Digitization: Is Access to Internet Fundamental?

By: Manya Manchanda, VIPS GGSIPU Delhi

INTRODUCTION

With the emergence of the Information age in the early twenty-first century, the internet came into existence completely changing networking. The digital revolution replaced the wired communications, connecting the humankind globally and ideally weaving one platform for everything.

These digital networks constructed by people for themselves have become spaces where people construct and manage their lives. Soon the internet has become the lifeline of various activities such as businesses, education, personal interactions and much more. The existence of real-life has increasingly become dependent on virtual-life over the internet.

Internet Shutdowns are a tool for regulating internet censorship. Internet Shutdown is defined as a government-imposed intentional disruption of fixed-line or mobile Internet, rendering the Internet effectively inaccessible or inoperative for a specific population or location, within the territory of India, for any duration of time.

In other words, it is a blanket ban on Internet Access. With the ambition of making “Digital India”, internet shutdown turns out to be a blockade in achieving this goal. Falsifying the ideology that only authoritative regimes implement internet shutdowns, India being the largest democracy has seen over 106 shutdowns in 2019 alone.[1]

There has been a constant increase in instances of internet shutdowns as of January 2020, there were a total of 382 internet shutdowns across India, of which 180 shutdowns were in the region of Jammu and Kashmir per se.

The western state of Rajasthan came second with 68 internet shutdowns and Uttar Pradesh at third position with 28 internet shutdowns imposed.[2] India has had a total of 395 shutdowns since 2012 up to March 2020, with the longest being in Kashmir with 213 shutdowns since 4th August 2019 to 4th March 2020.[3]

The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in July 2016, condemning network disruptions and measures to be resorted by states to curb online access and dissemination of information. This resolution acknowledged that “rights in the online sphere, especially the right to freedom of expression requires the same standard of protection as in the offline world.

It recognised the role of the Internet in promoting affordable educational opportunities, called upon the Member States to develop transparent internet policies and work towards bridging the digital divide, along with the digital gender divide.” [4]

The paper accentuates the need for access to the internet at all times, which has acquired a ubiquitous role in the digital era. The second part of the paper deals with the impact of  internet on individual lives. It argues how the internet has formed part of the right to speech and expression under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. The third part asserts that internet is crucial in times of a pandemic.

The pandemic has compelled all fields of life to go ‘online’ and has paved way for novel digital initiatives to support the smooth productivity in life. It highlights internet as a prerequisite for the success of the “Digital India” campaign, particularly in the segregated area of Kashmir, where the lives of residents have come to a standstill due to arbitrary and frequent disruptions of internet services.

Lastly, a timely acknowledgement of the impact such disruptions have on freedom of speech and expression; other digitized initiatives in a democratic nation are the need of the moment.

HOW DOES INTERNET SHUTDOWNS AFFECT INDIVIDUALS?

Internet shutdown is not merely a disconnection from social media such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter or other social networking sites. It means limiting opportunities for artists, entrepreneurs and students who have indulged in amplifying an idea for learnings that are provided by online platforms including the SWAYAM online portal courses.

During an Internet shutdown, students are unable to appear for various examinations; journalists and families are unable to establish contact with the near and dear ones as well with the outside world, and dispersal of benefits through various e-governance schemes is hindered. The e-commerce businesses, including web-based or app-based businesses; cab companies; bank services; hotel and travel services are among the major categories of businesses that are affected during shutdowns. It is the cause of status inequality. 

 

IS INTERNET PART OF OUR FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH AND EXPRESSION?

Although, the Internet is not the only medium to exercise the right to free speech and expression but is correctly identified as a catalyst in the process of imparting, receiving, and sending information around the globe. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution has been interpreted to include the right to information as an important part of the right to freedom of speech and expression. 

The Supreme Court, in Anuradha Bhasin v. UOI [5], has expressly stated that online expression has become one of the major means of information diffusion, and is integral to the enjoyment of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a), but it can be restricted under Article 19(2) of the Constitution, where these restrictions are prescribed by law, are reasonable, and are imposed for a legitimate purpose.

The Indian Constitution under Article 19(2) lays down an all-inclusive list of reasonable restrictions including “interests of the sovereignty, integrity, security, friendly relations with the foreign States, public order, decency or morality or contempt of Court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

Also, the complete prohibition on freedom of speech and expression (Article 19) should not excessively burden free speech and expression, the government has to explain why other lesser alternatives would be inadequate to deal with the situation. Although, on finding the orders of shutdown unreasonable, it did not strike down the orders instead set up a ‘review committee’ to look into the matter, creating ambiguities in its judgement.

On the converse, the Court noted that terrorists rely heavily on the internet, which allows them to disseminate false information and propaganda, raise funds, and recruit others to their cause. The Court expressed caution at balancing national security with liberty and rejected the notion that a government should be prohibited from achieving a public good at the cost of fundamental rights. But, such a positive stand was not long-lived.

It was also argued that social media allows people to send messages and communicate with large numbers of people simultaneously and thus, could be used as a means to incite violence. Additionally, arguing, that the internet allows for the transmission of false news, which then, is used to spread violence among youth.

But, within the ambit of the “Digital India” Programme, the government has launched myGov Portal, wherein all central ministries are present on social media and have utilised social media for accepting grievances, feedback from the public, constructing the World’s Largest Digital Democracy Platform for engagement with the government for all. Nonetheless, the largest democracy of the world contradicts its actions by frequently and arbitrarily implementing internet shutdowns for long hours completely defeating all steps in the advancement of digitalization.

INTERNET SHUTDOWN IN TIMES OF A PANDEMIC

The Kashmir Internet Shutdown is an act of collective punishment to the people there, without an alibi of an offence by them. Internet shutdown was imposed on 4th August 2019, when the Parliament of India through a Presidential order abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution.[6] There was a preventive shutdown imposed in the state which hasn’t been lifted entirely.

The shutdown in Kargil district was lifted on 27th December 2019 but continues in other parts of the state. The beginning of the communication blockade saw landlines as well as Mobile services restricted, subsequently, the ban on landlines was lifted but the suspension of mobile internet continues in the area.[7]

On 25th January 2020, 2G services were restored in the valley only for verified users. Only whitelisted websites could be accessed and social media still remains prohibited. The services were snapped again on account of security concerns for Republic Day, 2G services for whitelisted websites were later restored on 26th January 2020.

On 4th March 2020, a new order was passed by the administration of J&K, the whitelist was removed but the internet could only be accessed using 2G on verified SIM cards. In a petition filed before the Apex court[8], to restore 4G network in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the court on agreeing to the petitioners’ argument of orders of shutdown in pandemic being unreasonable and failing the proportionality test of territorial extent contrarily ruled out to set up a “special committee” of the executive itself.

The court defied its own principles as laid in the case of Anuradha Bhasin and abdicated its duties onto the executive, defying the constitutional mandate of checks and balance.

On analysing the 2G technology, we note, it is primarily used for voice services. Although data services can be accessed on 2G, the speeds are comparable to a bullock cart[9]. The world is increasingly shifting onto 5G and 4G networks. In India, 4G networks are extensively being used to deliver high-speed internet and high-quality voice services. 

The National Digital Communications Policy 2018[10], ensures the development of a holistic and harmonised approach towards the emerging technologies that include Hi-speed internet, availability of next-generation networks like 5G. Nonetheless, its reluctance to provide internet access in certain regions and only 2G network in Kashmir region call attention to its irresolute ideas.

As claimed by the government, the “Digital India” programme is empowering Indians with the power of technology, bridging the digital divide between digital haves and digital haves-not.[11] Divergent to its aim, the government is segregating one part of the country on concerns of national integrity and security overlooking its duties towards the citizens of those areas.

IMPACT ON HEALTHCARE

Nevertheless, moving onto the healthcare situation in times of a pandemic outbreak. The ICT Based COVID initiatives, including Aarogya Setu App that helps citizens in health assessment; enables them to get assistance in containing the spread of the virus and also inform them if they come in contact with any COVID positive patient. All this is accessible only if there is workable and undisturbed internet connection in the region.

However, owing to 2G accessibility the citizens are deprived of such positive steps during a pandemic. Making questionable remarks on the rights of citizens and the duties of the authorities.

The Ayush Sanjivani[12] initiative, wherein the Ministry of Ayush has developed a mobile app for the public, to help them enhance immunity and promote healthy living in times of COVID is an initiative in vain for the J&K citizens.

Another ICT based initiative being applauded is the e-Sanjeevani Tele-Consultation Services[13], for providing healthcare facilities to patients through video-based clinical consultations for doctors. However, there has been an inability to keep pace with such developments in Kashmir due to the slow 2G network.

Coronavirus is one of its kind and never has medical science tackled something akin to this. Every day, there are new leads on symptoms, cures published by medical experts across the world and many doctors in Kashmir aren’t able to gain insights into such developments.

IMPACT ON ONLINE EDUCATION

The Central government has also launched the PM e-VIDYA programme, with an aim to unify all efforts related to digital/online/on-air education, during the lockdown. DIKSHA (ONE NATION- ONE PLATFORM) programme forms part of the initiative, for providing quality e-resources in school education, but will clearly be defeated in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir due to internet blackout in the region.

IMPACT ON HUMAN RIGHTS

The 2020 Report of the Special Rapporteur to the Human Rights Council on ‘Disease pandemics and the freedom of opinion and expression’[14] condemns India’s actions of internet shutdown in Kashmir in context of the pandemic and urges that due to migration of essential services to online platforms, shutdowns not only restrict freedom of expression but also interfere with other fundamental rights of citizens. It also infringes Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Office of High Commissioner, United Nations Human Rights (OHCHR) has ruled out COVID-19 guidelines which emphasize that “Internet access is essential for ensuring that information reaches those affected by the virus. Governments should bring an end to any existing internet disruptions or shutdowns and keep the internet on. States should also work to ensure the broadest possible access to internet service by taking steps to bridge the digital divide.” [15]

CONCLUSION

The Internet constitutes the infrastructure of the global village. Connectivity and communication have emerged as methods to facilitate means of livelihoods for people all over. The idea of an Atmanibhar Bharat supported by the “Digital India” campaign aims to empower the citizen digitally by providing universal mobile connectivity and public internet accessibility, thus making the internet an important medium for the citizen to access public services.

Conceiving the idea of forming digital cities and the Internet of Things (IoT) cannot function without placing reliance on access to the Internet at all times. India stands at the top of the list, for having the most internet shutdowns and brings down the idea of Internet freedom. Internet shutdowns continue to be asserted by the government as a tool to control the spread of rumours and false information during situations affecting national security in the subcontinent. Various organisations at the national as well as International level have urged countries like India to bring an end to internet shutdowns.

Contemplating the importance placed on the Internet in furthering future-development goals of digitalization, it is obnoxious to see an inclination towards shutting down the Internet during law and order situations, ignoring the grave economic damage that comes along.

At times of such shutdowns, a citizen’s ability to exercise his right through the internet is severely sabotaged. Besides financial losses, the adverse psychological and social impact of internet shutdowns is evidently visible, citizens have developed increasing feelings of isolation and exclusion from the rest of the country. Furthermore, it impacts the mental health of the citizens.

This also creates disbelief in the actions of the government. This impact of shutdowns is missed in the fuss of politics. There is a need for an independent body to filter and censor fake news affecting the nation, instead of the government exercising unreasonable powers of the shutdown.

The Internet, in times of a pandemic, also helps in spreading the messages of frequent sanitization and social distancing. It forms a medium to generate employment, promote a healthy mental state and social contact with the rest. In times of physical isolation, the internet acts as the only medium to keep oneself virtually connected. The government, while balancing its power to protect national security, should give weightage to the constitutional rights of its citizens. 

ENDNOTES

[1] Internet Shutdown tracker, Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), https://internetshutdowns.in (Last visited on 14/06/2020).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), ‘UN passes a resolution condemning internet shutdowns’, https://sflc.in/united-nations-passes-resolution-condemning-internet-shutdowns (Last visited at 20/06/2020).

[5] W.P. (C) No. 1031 of 2019.

[6] Declaration under Article 370(3) of the Constitution, The Gazette of India (G.S.R.562(E)), (Ministry of Law and Justice, 6th August 2019) available at http://egazette.nic.in/WriteReadData/2019/210243.pdf. 

[7] Internet Shutdowns tracker, longest shutdown, https://internetshutdowns.in. (last visited on 14/06/2020).

[8] Foundation of Media Professionals v. Union Territory of J&K and Anr, 2020 SCC 453.

[9] Manu Kaushik, ‘World is moving to 5G but India to 2G. Here’s why’ (July 3, 2018) https://www.businesstoday.in/sectors/telecom/india-2g-bidding-dot-reliance-jio-4g-feature-phones/story/279856.html.

[10] National Digital Communications Policy 2018, https://dot.gov.in/sites/default/files/Final%20NDCP-2018_0.pdf. 

[11] Government of India, E-book on Digital India Journey in Last 5 years, https://digitalindia.gov.in/ebook/5_years_of_Digital_India_Book.pdf. (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, 2020).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kaye David, Special Rapporteur, Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, UN Doc A/HRC/44/49 (23 April 2020) p.9, https://undocs.org/A/HRC/44/49.

[15] OHCHR COVID-19 Guidance, Information and Participation (13 May 2020), https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/COVID19Guidance.aspx.

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