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India responds to internet shutdown criticism... by codifying rules to make it legal
Tuesday, 29 August 2017 08:38

The Indian government has responded to fierce criticism of its increasing use of internet shutdowns by codifying rules for when the extreme measure is allowed.

In a notification [PDF] published earlier this month, the Indian Ministry of Communications has published the process and authority required for a cutoff of internet services in the populous country.

In essence, it requires the highest-level official in charge of domestic security – the Ministry of Home Affairs for the whole country or a state's Home Department official – to sign off on any shutdown.

However, anyone at Joint Secretary rank or higher can also order an internet shutdown "in unavoidable circumstances" or if gaining permission from the Home Department "is not feasible." In these circumstances, the ban can only hold for 24 hours without being authorized by the Home Department.

Any shutdown order will have to come with an explanation and will be reviewed within five days by a "review committee" made up of top members of the legal, executive and administrative branches to ensure it is in accordance with the law – ie, that it was ordered "due to public emergency or public safety."

Although that approach does appear to put a formal structure around what has become an increasing problem in India as well as many African and Asian countries, it has also dismayed many who have been arguing that internet connections should be treated like utilities and only cut off in the most extreme circumstances.

The fact that the Indian government's bureaucracy has embraced internet shutdowns means that it is a form of control it is unlikely to give up.

The number of internet shutdowns have been steadily growing in India, particularly in the disputed Kashmir region, where there have been 50 in the past five years, with 19 in the past year alone.

The problem has grown so pervasive that a dedicated website tracking them and arguing for reform has been set up. "As the Internet is a key enabler of many fundamental rights, including freedom of speech and expression, such frequent disruptions have been a cause for concern," states InternetShutdowns.in.

"They threaten the democratic working of nations, and also point to the gradual normalization of the mindset that permits such blanket restriction on Internet access."

Arab Spring

The trend for killing all access to digital information on smartphones and computers started during the Egyptian revolution back in 2011, when authorities shut down the entire country's web access prior to a big protest march. Employees of ISPs and mobile phone companies reported troops turning up at their homes and pointing guns at their families in order to enforce the shutdown.

Until then, many governments had assumed it was not possible to turn off internet access to their entire nation, due to the decentralized nature of the network. But soon after, governments across the globe educated themselves about AS numbers and internet routing, and started using their power to set up systems that would allow them to order network shutdowns.

What was originally only intended to be used in more extreme circumstances has quickly devolved into officials using their powers for all sorts of questionable – and often political – reasons.

Bangladesh switched off its entire country's net connectivity prior to the sentencing of former government leaders for war crimes. Iraq shut down the entire country for several hours at a time in order to prevent exam cheating.

Cameroon took things one step further and cut off the country's southwest and northwest provinces for several weeks following violent protests, causing a huge knock-on financial impact.

United Nations

The situation has grown so persistent that the UN has officially condemned the practice. And one internet infrastructure organization, the regional internet registry for Africa – Afrinic – even heard a proposal to punish countries that carried out such blocks by refusing to provide those countries with additional IP address (the proposal was swiftly beaten down by Afrinic's staff and board).

India's rules could, in theory, limit the number of shutdowns put in place for the wrong reasons. But that would all depend on enforcement. A 24-hour cut-off of the internet to a region is a very powerful and blunt tool that will be very tempting for officials to use, especially if they are allowed to use weak definitions of "public safety" as justification.

It also means that, unlike European and North American countries, the ability to force internet shutdowns will become official and formalized in India, with ISPs and other relevant internet companies expected to have procedures in place to cut off their services at a moment's notice.

That approach will likely be reproduced by other countries in Africa and Asia. ®

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