Telecom Bill 2023: Legalizing Internet Shutdowns Raises Concerns Over Colonial Powers

Controversial Clause Sparks Fears of Government Overreach
Telecom Bill 2023: Legalizing Internet Shutdowns Raises Concerns Over Colonial Powers
Image source- Entrackr

New Delhi - The Indian Parliament has approved the Telecommunications Bill of 2023, aimed at modernizing the country's telecommunications law, which had its roots in the century-old Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1933, and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act of 1950. This legislative move represents a comprehensive rewrite of the existing telecom laws. A particular clause under the bill interestingly legalizes internet shutdowns.

According to a report by the Internet Freedom Foundation, "the ability to suspend, curtail, or revoke the authorization or assignment in case of breach of any of its terms and conditions rests with the Union government [Clause 32(2)]. A similar provision to revoke the license exists in the Telegraph Act, 1885, but it does not have any provisions for the suspension of the license.

The entirety of Clause 20 in the Telecom Bill, 2023, whether it is the Union government’s power to temporarily possess, suspend, intercept, detain any telecommunication service [20(1)(a)], to intercept, detain, disclose, or suspend any message or class of messages [20(2)(a)], to direct suspension of any telecommunication service or class of telecommunication [20(2)(b)], or to notify encryption and data processing standards [19(f)], cements the colonial powers of the Union government, which, if misused and extended to internet services, could have serious consequences."

At the Digipub event of December 20th, which focused on 'Telecom Bill: Tech Innovation, Licensing, and Privacy,' Apar Gupta, a prominent lawyer, expressed, "When the Telegraph Act existed, there were provisions for taking over temporary possession. There were provisions for the stoppage of subject-matter transmission, interception of messages through telegraphic means. The new bill is upholding the colonial laws."

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Gupta further delved into the bill by discussing the telecom department and the study that was stopped from being conducted. The lawyer asked, "Now, what does this bill do? This bill essentially ignores all the judicial precedent that indicates the need for safeguards. Even the report on the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT, given the partisan nature of Standing Committees, was prevented by the BJP MP Nishikant Dubey from finalizing the report on internet shutdowns, stating it's of a political character. The report asked for a study to be conducted. But that report, in fact, when it was made, was essentially to be implemented by the department. The report asked the telecom department to conduct a study."

"The study was supposed to be on whether internet shutdowns are able to satisfy the purpose for which they are made, which is essentially to restore law and order and what is the impact on the person who suffers it. The Department of Telecom refused to do it and to make a centralized repository in which orders are sent to it by the state by citing a specious argument of jurisdiction, whereas the National Crime Records Bureau publishes federal data on a crime speech to work out."

According to the provisions of the Bill, the central or state government can take control of any telecommunication service or network in case of a public emergency or for safety reasons. It also grants officials from both the central and state governments the authority to intercept, detain, or choose not to transmit messages from an individual or a group of people.

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