New Delhi, June 17: In a strongly-worded report, released on Thursday, the advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, has criticised India for banning internet services 20 times in 2017.
In the report, India: 20 Internet Shutdowns in 2017, the HRW said Indian authorities should cease arbitrary restrictions of the country's internet and telecommunications networks.
While the Centre and the states contended that these shutdowns are needed to prevent violence fueled by rumors circulated on social media or mobile messaging applications, the HRW insisted that protecting free expression online serves public interest.
"State governments have imposed 20 internet shutdowns so far in 2017, including by four states in June. Shutdowns in response to campaigns on social media and mobile mass messaging applications spreading false and even incendiary information have frequently been disproportionate.
The authorities have failed to follow legal procedures, undermined stated objectives of preventing rumours or panic, and ordered unnecessary shutdowns such as to prevent cheating in examinations," stated the report.
"Indian authorities' concerns over the misuse of the internet and social media should not be the default option to prevent social unrest," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director.
"The lack of transparency and failure to explain these shutdowns only further the perception that they are meant to suppress non-violent reporting and criticism of the government."
The HRW reiterated that international human rights law protects the right of people to freely seek, receive, and provide information and ideas through all media, including the internet.
Security-related restrictions must be law-based and a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern.
Recent internet shutdowns in India include:
. On June 5, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Maharashtra state suspended mobile internet services in Nashik district for a few hours after protests by farmers turned violent.
. On June 6, the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh suspended internet services in six districts following farmers' protests for higher rates for their produce.
. On June 7, the People's Democratic Party-led government in Jammu and Kashmir state suspended mobile internet services in the Kashmir valley after the killing of a civilian by security forces. This was the fifth time the state government had suspended the mobile internet or broadband services in 2017 in a questionable attempt to prevent rumors from fueling violent clashes between government forces and street protesters.
. On June 8, the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh state shut down internet services for two days in Saharanpur district after authorities arrested a Dalit leader following violent clashes between Dalits and members of a dominant caste. The government had also temporarily shut down mobile internet services in the district two weeks earlier.
The report added that since 2012, 79 internet shutdowns have been reported across 14 states in India. The numbers have steadily risen, from 2 in 2012 to 31 in 2016. According to the Software Freedom Law Centre, which tracks internet shutdowns in India, a majority of the shutdowns targeted mobile internet services.
"The Indian government has been promoting the idea of a Digital India where people increasingly access goods and services online, but which simply cannot afford blanket restrictions," Ganguly said.
"A modern India that wants technology for development cannot at the same time be haphazardly invoking national security to deny people access to essential information and services."
Read the full report here