Dr. Shashi Tharoor MP has urged the Parliamentary Committee on Subordinate Legislation to review the merits of "Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services(Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules 2017" ,which enable temporary shutdown of internet and telecom services.
In a letter written to Rajya Sabha MP Dilip Kumar Gandhi, the Chairman of the Committee, Dr.Tharoor has flagged several concerns regarding the rules. He points out that the Rules, which were framed in August 2017 without any pre-legislative consultation, has led to "arbitrary and disproportionate internet shutdowns" across the country. About 121 internet shutdowns have been enforced in the country based on the Rules, which is the highest globally for this period. Apart from curbing free speech, the shutdowns impact economy, as several small businesses rely on online transaction. This years' shutdown has caused losses of Rs.22,154 crores.
Dr.Tharoor further highlighted that the Rules lacked procedural safeguards. The Rules empower the executive, i.e the Home Secretary, to order shut downs instead of quasi-judicial authorities like District Magistrate. Appeal is not provided against shut down orders. There is no provision for prior hearing as well. This can lead to abrupt shutdowns, which will disrupt schedules of people. The Rules also don’t provide for a sunset clause that mandates an automatic end of the internet shutdown. "The lack of procedural safeguards will enable the executive to use these powers in a high-handed manner", Tharoor states in his letter.
He invites attention to the SC decision in Shreya Singal, by which Section 66A of the IT Act was struck down for its over-broad impact on free speech. It is also highlighted that the Rules do not define "telecom services. "This leaves us with the very broad definition of the term under the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, 1997 that extends to telephonic services that do not use the internet, including voice calls, SMSes and so on. An open-ended definition such as this paves way for an easy misuse of powers in restraining a fundamental right, namely, the right to free speech", he states.
Tharoor also criticises the composition of the Review Committee under Rule 2(2). They do not have members who might take a contrary stand to government. The Committee should include a retired judge or an eminent jurist, to provide legal expertise and independent views, while determining the legality of the shut down order.