India should consider legal reform to secure 5G technology

India should consider legal reform to secure 5G technology

India is the leader of Internet Shut down in the world. In fact, legal frameworks were tailored to allow the authorities to do so. However, this political tool used by Indian authorities goes far beyond social media platform shut down. It has technical, economic and, human rights impacts. Meanwhile, it might affect advanced technology deployment such as 5G.

India has a dedicated website that reports instances of internet shut downs. Between 2012 and 2020, there were 391 Internet shut downs across the country. In 2019, Internet suspensions total cost was estimated by $1,329.8M according to Top 10 VPN. And the most blocked applications were WhatsApp (6236 hours), Facebook (6208 hours), Instagram (6193 hours), Twitter (5860 hours) and, YouTube (648 hours) as reported by The  Global Cost of Internet shut downs in a 2019 report.

When the Indian government decides to shut down the Internet, software engineers working for IT and data analytics firms lose half a day’s work and fail to deliver projects for clients based abroad on time. According to Internet Society, web-based services or applications hosted in a country where internet restrictions are implemented may be at risk. These applications might be used internationally and internet shut down blocks access to and from the rest of the global internet.

Internet shortages in India have disrupted travel and hospitality businesses. Tourists book a hotel in advance for example, cannot contact the property to cancel or modify the reservations and due to the lack of internet connectivity, the hotel fails to reimburse its customers. On the other hand, these businesses rely on the Internet for service promotion.  But unfortunately, due to internet shortage, there is a lack of access to some applications like TripAdvisor and GoogleMaps.

The Zomato of Kashmir KartFood, a delivery business, had to stop in 2019 due to internet shortage, according to The Hindu Business line. Kashmir box has also notified its clients via an alert on the website. “Apologies for the inability of delivering products”.

Significant harm to the economy was reported especially since the Covid-19 pandemic. It has been hard for many Indians to work from home and avoid public spaces and gatherings. Slow or unavailable access to the Internet makes it difficult for Indians to work from home. In fact, they haven’t been able to shift to video conferencing which requires a high-speed Internet.

Denying citizens from access to the Internet violates their rights to access information. Thus, it might put their lives at risk. In fact, the restriction of high-speed Internet in India has caused struggles for health professionals who cannot easily access precautions recommended by the World Health Organization. They have to wait for hours to download and access guidelines.

The United Kingdom is planning to form an alliance of 10 democracies- including India- to create an alternative pool of 5G technology to avoid the reliance of the telecom giant Huawei. But India should immediately consider reviewing its legal framework to secure access to 5G technology.

The Indian government is planning to auction 5G technology around the first quarter of 2021 as part of its Smart City vision. Reliance Jio was the first to approach the Indian Government to conduct a 5G mobile network trial. Meanwhile, Coronavirus would delay 5G deployment in India and globally. But what about Internet shut down? In fact, Internet shut down would be a challenge for new telecom operators. Would it be cost-effective or efficient for new companies to implement 5G network in India knowing that they would be asked to shut down internet anytime? According to Al Jazeera, the new citizenship law cost India’s mobile operators around $350,000 in revenue every hour they are forced to suspend internet services. When the services are suspended, the customer delays recharges which would be costly for the telecom operators. Rajan S Mathews, the Director General of Cellular Operations Association in India (COIA) avowed that a telco loses a minimum of Rs 1.5 crore a day per state if its internet services are shut down. On the other hand, service shut downs cause significant inconvenience to the subscribers since it prevents them from carrying out some essential services such as banking and medical appointments, he said. “We are license holders and have no choice but to follow orders of the government”, he said.

India became the capital of the Internet shut down in the world due to the institutional framework that enables them. The section 5 (2) of the Indian Telegraph Act (1885) has been invoked to order temporary Internet service suspensions. Section 69 (A) of the IT Act (2008) gives the government power to block particular websites. While Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, gives the government the power to issue orders in urgent cases or danger. This enables officials to block the internet in specific geographic areas in the name of public order and preventing violence. Officials use legal authority to compel individual telecom companies to shut down services.

In 2017, the Ministry of communications has framed rules to be followed by the government to temporarily suspend the internet in any part of the country. Under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety), all telecom services providers have to designate officers to receive and handle government orders to suspend telecom services.

In December 2019, the Indian Government ordered big telecoms to shut down Internet services in the Capital New Delhi and other cities due to protests over a new and controversial citizenship law. Public authorities usually send emails and letters to companies ordering them to shut down the internet but they haven’t been very transparent about publishing the written letter orders. Even under India’s right to information law, lawyers couldn’t secure these letters.

Indian government and Indians citizens have the same dream: a digital dream. While Indian authorities are dreaming of 5G technology, citizens are dreaming of a right they barely have access to- Internet. Indian government orders to shut down internet violates the Article 19 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Social Rights. On September 20, 2019, the Kerala High Court Declares the “Right to access Internet” as a fundamental right. On January 10, 2020, India Supreme court ruled that the Internet shut down in India represents a violation of constitutional fundamental rights.

On March 2020, and after 7 months of internet shut down in Jammu and Kashmir, Indian Authority restored to slowing down internet speed to 2G according to Access Now. #keepItOn Coalition has been fighting internet shut downs since 2016. On April 2020, 42 organizations sent an open letter to the Government of India to lift internet restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir during the Covid-19 pandemic. On May 27, 2020, the Government of Jammu and Kashmir issued an order which stated that Mobile Internet services, mobile cellular services- voices and SMS will remain restricted to 2G until June 17.

Internet shut down cause the spread of Covid-19 across the country. “Disrupting internet access during this critical period will prevent people from accessing timely information about the Covid-19 virus, thereby aiding its spread”, says Felicia Anthonio, Access Now’s Campaigner, #KeepItOn Lead.

There are many ways of Internet shut down including cutting Submarine Fiber optic cables. If that happens in India, the world would be in trouble. It could take down a significant portion of the telecommunications between the Gulf, Africa and, other parts of Asia. According to The Submarines Network, there are 15 subsea cables in 15 landing stations from 5 cities, across India – communications cable systems that link India to the rest of the world.