The Standing Committee on Communications and IT, headed by senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, tabled a report on the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Service) Rules, 2017 on Wednesday.
According to the report, the committee asked whether it was technically possible to shut down only those services in areas likely to be used by terrorist/anti-social elements rather than shutting down the internet as a whole. This was in view the fact that a complete shutdown of telecom services and internet affects people in many ways, it said.
“The Committee strongly recommend that the department urgently examine the recommendation of TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) and come out with a policy which will enable the selective banning of OTT (Over The Top) services with suitable technological intervention, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram services during period of unrest/crisis that are liable to be used by the terrorists or antinational element/forces to ferment trouble in the specified regions,” it said.
Selective banning, the panel pointed out, will allow financial services, health, education, and various other services to continue to operate for business as usual, thereby minimizing inconvenience and suffering to the general public and also help in controlling the spread of misinformation during unrest.
The panel noted that the suspension rules for regulating internet shutdowns in India have been “grossly misused” and a proper mechanism must be put in place at the earliest to decide on the merit or appropriateness of telecom and internet shutdowns.
According to the report, internet shutdowns have led to huge economic loss, untold suffering for the public, and “severe reputational damage” to the country.
It quoted the Cellular Operators’ Association of India, according to which telecom operators reportedly lose Rs 24.5 million (Rs 2.45 crore) per hour in every circle area where there is a shutdown or throttling. Other businesses which rely on the internet could lose up to 50% of this amount, it added.
“The Committee are of the view that when the Government’s thrust is on digitization and knowledge economy with free and open access to the internet at its core, frequent suspension of internet on flimsy grounds is uncalled for and must be avoided. There is a need to monitor the exercise of this provision so that these are not misused to the disadvantage of people at large,” the report stated.
Last year, the Supreme Court had ruled that the communication restrictions imposed by the central government in Jammu and Kashmir need to be reviewed forthwith and that any suspension of internet services for an indefinite period would be subjected to judicial scrutiny.
Following this, the 2017 rules were amended in November 2020 to mandate that any suspension order issued shall not be in operation for more than 15 days, and all such orders should be published to enable the affected persons to challenge them before a high court or other appropriate forum.
“The Committee find that these guidelines have not been followed by all States/UTs uniformly, thus giving rise to scope for ambiguity and non-compliance. The Committee, therefore, urge the Government to ensure that proper SOP/guidelines are devised, and Supreme Court mandated guidelines are strictly adhered to in the future,” it said.