In a ruling by India’s Supreme Court, the country’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) has been ordered to provide the grounds on which it imposes and approves internet shutdowns.
The Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) filed suit against the state of Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and West Bengal, after internet blackouts were ordered last year to prevent cheating during the state civil service exams, a common occurrence in the country.
Using internet jammers, many districts block internet access near schools and exam centers. However, some states have opted for the more extreme measure of blocking out the internet entirely in certain areas.
The ruling requires the MEITY to submit an affidavit “indicating whether there is any standard protocol with respect to the grievance raised by the petitioner and if so to what extent and how the protocol is adhered to and implemented.”
Meanwhile, India’s Internet and Mobile Association, a group that includes Twitter, Google, and Facebook, is calling for more central oversight of internet shutdowns. In a 2019 ruling, states were permitted to make their own decisions on shutdowns. This has led to shutdowns occurring more frequently, with India leading the world with the largest number of shutdowns.
India’s Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology concluded last year that many of these shutdowns were ordered on the basis of “subjective assessments” by local officials, often being used “for routine policing.”
But internet blackouts are also imposed for murkier reasons. In early 2021, internet access was cut off in the Jammu and Kashmir districts to try and quell protests linked to India’s Independence Day.
The court gave MEITY three weeks to produce its protocols for ordering internet shutdowns along with its policy for implementing them. If the ministry fails to do so, the central government may have to intervene.