MUMBAI — The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), the apex body for India’s telecom industry and considered to be the industry’s official voice, has criticised the Modi government’s policy of internet shutdowns in the wake of country wide protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act.
Rajan Mathews, Director General of the association, which includes operators such as Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, told HuffPost India that the industry was surprised by the cavalier fashion in which the government had issued recent shutdown orders, and called on the government to review the policy.
“This is not the first time that the internet has been used as a way to control protests or unrests, but we have approached [The Ministry of Communications] asking it to not use internet shutdowns as the first line of defence in these situations,” Mathews said. “The general consensus among major telecom operators is that the industry does not want the use of this policy in a cavalier fashion. We have been raising this issue with the government.”
Instances of internet shutdowns have increased exponentially since 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term began. The government shut down the internet 106 times in 2019 as compared to just 6 times in 2014, according to Internet Shutdown Tracker, a portal which tracks such incidents across the country.
Most of these shutdowns have happened in Jammu & Kashmir, where the information blackout has now entered its fifth month — the longest recorded internet shutdown for a democracy globally. This most recent Kashmir blockade began on August 5, 2019 shortly before the Indian government abrogated Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood. On October 14, the government allowed some leeway by restoring postpaid phone connections in the valley with curbs still in place for mobile internet.
But on October 20, the Apex Advisory Council for Telecom in India—a joint industry initiative backed by COAI—dispatched a letter to Ajay Kumar Bhalla, Home Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, questioning the merit behind the decision.
The council called the decision to restore postpaid connections while maintaining curbs on prepaid connections “manifestly arbitrary”, saying that “it will lead to serious financial and economic losses for the member operators. Both prepaid and postpaid consumers were subject to the same stringent identification and address verification norms as mandated by the Department of Telecom, the letter noted.
The council requested the ministry to lift curbs on both prepaid and postpaid connections, even offering an explanation in person if required by the ministry. The ministry didn’t respond to the letter.
COAI has also informally conveyed its reservations regarding a prolonged internet shutdown in Kashmir to the DoT, Mathews said.
Since 2016, Mathews said, the COAI has consistently written to the Department of Telecom asking for a review of the policy of internet shutdowns, which the association maintains has considerable economic costs — both for the industry and millions of customers accessing basic services. The association has never received a response by the DoT either.
The COAI estimates Indian telecom companies are losing close to Rs 2.45 crore for an hour of internet shutdown, which, it maintains, would doubly hurt companies at a time when the sector is piling on losses and remains under financial stress after a Supreme Court order in October asking the telecom companies to pay overdue licensing fee amounting to $13 billion.
But Mathews says that the effect of internet shutdowns could be more profound on common people.
“In an increasingly integrated society where more and more people look to the internet for their livelihood, shutting it down becomes a serious issue. We have always said that internet shutdowns—given the increasing dependence of various forms of commerce and service deliver—ought not to be the very first line of defence in any situation. It should be used very carefully,” Mathews said.
“Temporary” Suspension Provision
To shut down the internet, the government relies on the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules of 2017 that were inserted into the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 by a gazetted notification dated August 2017.
These rules place the onus of the final authority on internet shutdowns with the home secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs, or the secretary to state government in charge of home department or an officer not below the rank of joint secretary to the government of India.
But despite the above rules, which were enacted without public consultations and notified without public access to the published draft, the frequency of internet shutdowns have increased in the country mostly owing to lax oversight and few safeguards.
On December 19, in response to protests against CAA in the city, the government shutdown the internet in parts of New Delhi for the first time.
Mathews was surprised. So were senior executives at the telecom companies.
“I think it took a lot of us by surprise. And not just because it is the capital city,” Mathews said. “But the fact that these notices have been a longstanding requirement in the terms and conditions of telecom licenses - so if the government gives us any orders for internet shutdowns, we are obligated to comply otherwise our licenses could come under scrutiny even leading to possible cancellations.”
But if a big telecom operator defied the government’s notice for internet shutdown, would the government still threaten to cancel its telecom license despite the risk of disrupting millions of mobile customers?
“The government can do it,” Mathews said. “And it could begin with a host of severe penalties for non compliance with T&Cs of the license at the time when the telecom companies are already reeling under a financial stress.”
“The policy is always to comply with such orders. Look, we can’t defy a sovereign order if our licenses are under a sovereign government - So even if we do not agree with an order, we have to comply with it.”
Mathews said that the government should seriously consider a cost-benefit analysis of this policy and called for more investment in better intelligence gathering by upgrading security infrastructure in relatively poorer states. He also asked the government to minimise the impact of internet shutdowns on common people by making its execution more granular in nature.
“But more importantly, what we need at the moment is a post-facto evaluation of how effective are these internet shutdowns.”
Thus far, the government is yet to publicly clarify if it has conducted any official evaluation of the effectiveness of this policy.
Research by Stanford’s Jan Rydzak, who has closely studied the impact of internet and communication shutdowns in India, indicates there is no evidence to suggest that internet shutdowns quell protests or check violence.
In an interview to HuffPost India in September, Rydzak called for an urgent assessment of this policy’s effectiveness by the government.
“Despite hundreds of internet shutdowns at this point in Kashmir and other states, there have been no impact assessments or evaluations of its effectiveness by either the state or central governments,” Rydzak told Huffpost India in September. “So that begs the question of whether they are not publishing these impact assessments because they don’t know the effects or because they know that internet shutdowns don’t work.”
“I agree that the government should do timely assessments to check if this policy is at all working - any responsible government would and should do an evaluation,” Mathews said. “I think people who feel disenfranchised with this policy should approach the courts for an official evaluation of this policy in order to ask for more accountability from the government.”