Manipur deprived of internet for 50 days: Internet Freedom Foundation criticises templatised Orders

Internet Freedom Foundation has stated that the indefinite extension of the internet shutdown in Manipur violates the Supreme Court ruling in Anuradha Bhasin versus Union of India (2020).


THURSDAY marked 50 days since the blanket shutdown of the internet in Manipur.

Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that advocates for digital rights and liberties, issued a statement expressing their deep concern over the “indefinite” character that the Manipur internet shutdown has acquired.

As per IFF’s statement, only mobile data services were initially suspended in Manipur. However, since the second day of the shutdown on May 4, a blanket suspension of all internet services has been imposed.

The Order to suspend telecom services is currently regulated under  Section 5 (power for government to take possession of licenced telegraphs and to order interception of messages) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, read with Rule 2 of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017. Only on the grounds of ‘public emergency’ or ‘in the interest of public safety’ can the internet be suspended.

As per Anuradha Bhasin versus Union of India (2020), for passing an Order under Rule 2(1), an authorised officer should not only indicate the necessity of the measure but also enumerate the ‘unavoidable’ circumstances that compelled them to pass it. This rule integrates the proportionality analysis with the 2017 Rules.

In Justice K.S Puttaswamy (retired) versus Union of India (2017), the Supreme Court observed that a three-fold requirement must be fulfilled when restricting the right to privacy (including informational privacy), which is an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. These are the existence of a law, the requirement of legitimacy and proportionality.

Also read: Internet suspension for quilling protests costs India $4.7 billion

This three-fold test is not just limited to the restriction of privacy but is to be applied to a broader spectrum so far as restrictions on fundamental rights are concerned, as these are guarantees against the arbitrariness of State action.

Proportionality acts as a safeguard against arbitrary State action to ensure that the nature and quality of encroachment on the rights are not disproportionate to the object and purpose of the law.

In this context, Anuradha Bhasin stated that an indefinite Order for internet suspension is unconstitutional.

IFF has stated that the suspension is continued through “templatised” Orders issued every five days. This is not the first time it has been highlighted that the authorities are using pre-drafted templates to extend internet bans.

Also read: Error 404: Punjab’s internet blackout is the 700th internet shutdown in India

Previously, when Punjab saw a total internet blackout on March 18, as police were trying to arrest Khalistani separatist and Sikh preacher Amritpal Singh Sandhu, chief of the social organisation Waris Punjab De, preventive orders in the form of the pre-drafted template were circulated. These orders were considered problematic because they did not mention specific reasons for which the ban was ordered. 

Punjab’s internet shutdown was the 700th internet shutdown in India. 

Concerns have also been raised by IFF over the Twitter accounts being censored and withheld in India ‘under a legal demand’. There are no legal Orders or demands in this regard, depriving individuals of knowledge regarding the reasons for censorship and the opportunity to legally challenge it. 

According to IFF’s statement: “Secrecy in online censorship and bans, which is a continuing administrative practice, undermines individuals’ fundamental rights to expression and the collective fundamental right to receive information”.

Also read: India Imposed Most Internet Shutdowns in World, BJP-Ruled States 3.5 Times More Likely To Be Affected

Similar practices were adopted during the Punjab internet shutdown. Twitter accounts of journalists and several other persons, based in Punjab as well as elsewhere in the world, were withheld. Over one hundred persons associated with Sandhu or his cause have been arrested so far.

The former chief executive officer (CEO) of Twitter Jack Dorsey recently said that the Indian government threatened to shut down the social media network completely in India. This was in response to the demands made by the Union government to suspend the accounts of journalists critical of the government during the time of farmers’ protests.

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