The Supreme Court on Friday issued notice to the Ministry of Electronic and Information Technology (MEITY) on a plea filed by the Software Freedom Law Centre, seeking direction to the states to not suspend internet services on the grounds of preventing cheating in competitive examinations and for other such routine administrative reasons.
The bench headed by Chief Justice of India UU Lalit sought a response from the MEITY, asking it to file an affidavit indicating whether there is any standard protocol with respect to the grievance raised by the petitioner.
Advocate Vrinda Grover appeared for the petitioner, which is a legal services organisation — Software Freedom Law Center — and works for the promotion and protection of digital rights and digital freedoms.
The petition said that they had approached the court with a view to discontinuing the arbitrary and unjust practice of telecom service shutdowns, as it is contrary to the law and against the essence of the Constitution of India.
“That, there is a violation of the fundamental rights such as the Right To Equality, Right To Freedom of Speech and Expression, Right To Privacy, Right To Freedom of Trade, Right To Life, Right To Food, Right To Access Legal Remedies, and Right To Education, guaranteed under the Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution of India while imposing arbitrary and disproportionate telecom service shutdowns.
“That a ban on the internet at present is not limited to restricting the rights under above-mentioned articles of the constitution but it is equivalent to suppression of all legal and constitutional rights owing to the fact that the courts are being accessed through video conference facilities, which can be facilitated only through uninterrupted internet services,” the plea said.
“That the Respondent Governments and its instrumentalities have been imposing internet shutdowns across different districts in India, on the pretext of imaginary, fanciful or fictitious law and order problems arising out of the organization of examinations. The threat perception in all such cases is majorly flawed as district administrations in various states have been suspending internet services for an entire region for administrative reasons such as to prevent cheating in examinations,” the plea said.
“On one occasion, internet services were suspended even when high school examinations were being conducted. Such administrative decisions are manifestly arbitrary and wholly disproportionate response and are impermissible under the Constitution,” it added.
According to the plea, there have been 12 shutdowns imposed on exam-related issues which have led to the internet being shut down for more than 71 hours.
The petition said that as per the official data, there has been a total disruption of internet services of 12 shutdowns amounting to more than 71 hours for a large population, ostensibly to prevent cheating in exams, which is not based on any legislative mandate.
The petition has cited various instances including the one of September 2021, when the entire Rajasthan had to bear the brunt of internet suspension when the Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teachers (REET) was being conducted. Similar actions were taken by Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, and others, the plea mentioned.
It further added, “Suspending internet services for an entire district, or for multiple districts, is a disproportionate action on the part of a state, which has a damaging impact on economic activities and the livelihood of millions of citizens, and also denies access to the internet which facilitates various other rights including of communication, information, commerce and expression, and speech.”
Hence, the petition urged to direct the concerned state governments to not suspend internet services on the grounds of preventing cheating in examinations and for such other routine administrative reasons and to produce all orders made by the respondents bringing into effect the suspension of telecom and internet services to prevent cheating in examinations.
The plea also sought to set aside the blanket order of respondent state Rajasthan dated September 2, 2017, which delegated the power to suspend internet services to the Divisional Commissioners of the State.
The petition also sought to issue directions to declare that only the competent personnel as authorised by the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 shall issue orders to suspend telecommunication services and no blanket delegation of any authority is permissible in this regard.
“Issue a writ in the nature of mandamus directing the Respondents to publish all telecom shutdown orders in major national and regional newspapers in addition to websites of the respective Departments of Home,” the petition sought while also urging to direct the respondent states to form a review committee in accordance to the provisions of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, and to review all future orders to suspend telecom services within the timeframe stipulated in the law, irrespective of the suspension time-period.