Freedom of Speech – Defamation, Sedition, etc.

Should Internet shutdowns be used to maintain public order?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NA

Mains level: Frequent Internet shutdowns, need and consequences, Need for an balanced approach

Central Idea

  • In recent years, the Indian government has increasingly resorted to internet shutdowns as a means to control law and order in various regions, such as Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Manipur, and Punjab. India has witnessed a staggering 60% of internet shutdowns worldwide between 2016 and 2022.

Relevance of the topic

India emerged as the single biggest offender for a fifth consecutive year, with at least 84 internet blackouts in 2022

Shutdowns could have devastating impact on human lives such as , it may deepen the gender digital divide, disrupting the ability of women to conduct business or access information on reproductive healthcare

Reasons behind internet shutdowns in India

  • Communal tensions: Approximately 40-50% of internet shutdowns in India are officially attributed to communal tensions. Shutdowns are imposed to prevent the spread of rumors, hate speech, and incitement to violence during periods of heightened communal tensions.
  • Protests and demonstrations: Shutdowns are frequently imposed during protests and situations of civil unrest to control the spread of information, coordinate activities, and prevent further mobilization of protesters.
  • Preventing cheating in exams: Internet shutdowns have been imposed during exams to curb cheating and prevent the use of online resources that may aid in dishonest practices.
  • Religious processions: Shutdowns have also been observed during religious processions, particularly in regions with religious sensitivities, to prevent the circulation of inflammatory content and maintain public order.

Case study: Reviewing shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Manipur

  1. Jammu and Kashmir (J&K):
  • Prolonged Shutdown: The shutdown in J&K has been characterized by its extended duration, causing significant disruptions to the daily lives of residents. Internet access was severely restricted for an extended period, impacting essential services such as healthcare, education, and livelihoods.
  • Lack of Due Process: Concerns have been raised regarding the decision-making process, with instances of shutdowns imposed by district magistrates without higher-level involvement. This raises questions about procedural fairness and the adherence to due process.
  • Transparency and Justification: The lack of public information regarding shutdowns in J&K is a cause for concern. The transparency and clarity of justifications for imposing shutdowns are essential for accountability and safeguarding constitutional rights.
  1. Manipur:
  • Ongoing Shutdown and VPN Blocking: The Manipur High Court has formed a committee to explore blocking VPN servers while maintaining restrictions on social media websites. However, the feasibility of this solution is questioned as VPNs also play a role in the exercise of freedom of speech and expression.
  • Impact on Livelihoods and Services: The need to protect people’s livelihoods is emphasized, given the reliance on the internet for businesses and livelihoods. Ensuring access to critical services like healthcare and education during shutdowns becomes crucial.

Impact of internet shutdowns

  • Restriction of Fundamental Rights: Internet shutdowns curtail the exercise of fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression, access to information, and the right to privacy. These shutdowns limit people’s ability to communicate, express themselves, and access essential information.
  • Economic Consequences: Internet shutdowns have adverse effects on businesses, particularly those that rely on the internet for their operations. E-commerce, online services, and digital platforms suffer financial losses during shutdowns.
  • Disruption of Essential Services: Internet shutdowns disrupt access to critical services like healthcare, education, and emergency services. Telemedicine, online education, and remote work become inaccessible, impacting people’s well-being, educational opportunities, and productivity
  • Human Rights Violations: Prolonged and arbitrary internet shutdowns can be seen as human rights violations. They limit people’s ability to exercise their rights, stifle dissent, and undermine democratic processes.
  • Negative Impact on Education: Internet shutdowns disrupt online education, e-learning platforms, and access to educational resources. This hampers educational progress and has long-term consequences for individuals and societies.
  • Psychological and Emotional Impact: The inability to connect with others, access information, and engage in online activities can have psychological and emotional implications.

Justifications behind the frequent imposition of shutdowns

  • Maintaining Public Order: Internet shutdowns are often imposed as a measure to maintain public order and prevent the escalation of law and order situations.
  • Preventing the Spread of Misinformation: During times of crisis or unrest, shutting down the internet is seen as a way to prevent the rapid spread of misinformation and fake news. .
  • Curbing Organizational Activities: Shutdowns are also imposed to disrupt the organization and coordination of protests, demonstrations, or other activities perceived as a threat to public order.
  • Preserving Exam Integrity: Internet shutdowns may be implemented during examinations to prevent cheating. By restricting access to online resources, authorities aim to ensure the fairness and integrity of the examination process.

The two significant Supreme Court judgments related to internet shutdowns in India

  • Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India (2020): Recognized the right to access the internet as part of the right to freedom of speech and expression. Emphasized that internet shutdowns must be necessary and proportionate, subject to judicial review.
  • Faheema Shirin v. State of Kerala (2020): Reaffirmed the importance of internet access for exercising fundamental rights. Stressed that restrictions on internet access should be temporary, proportionate, and justified with reasons

Way forward: Need for balance between maintaining public order and safeguarding the interests of internet-dependent individuals

  • Protecting Public Order: Maintaining public order is a legitimate concern for governments to ensure safety, security, and the functioning of society. Internet shutdowns may be employed in exceptional situations where there is a real and imminent threat to public safety or when it is necessary to prevent the spread of violence or unrest.
  • Proportionality: Any measure taken to maintain public order, including internet shutdowns, should be proportionate to the threat faced. Shutdowns should be targeted, time-limited, and precisely tailored to address the specific concerns, rather than imposing blanket restrictions that impact the entire population.
  • Judicial Oversight: Independent judicial oversight is crucial to ensuring that any restrictions on internet access align with constitutional principles and international human rights standards.
  • Transparency and Accountability: Governments should provide clear and transparent justifications for internet shutdowns, including detailing the specific risks or threats that justify such measures.  Accountability mechanisms should be in place to address any abuses or violations during shutdowns.
  • Targeted Measures: Rather than resorting to complete shutdowns, governments should explore alternative measures that target specific content or platforms that pose risks to public order. Content moderation, selective blocking, or targeted interventions can help address concerns without unduly infringing on individual rights or stifling access to essential services.


  • The impact of shutdowns on livelihoods, education, and the economy underscores the urgency to seek alternative solutions. It is imperative that stakeholders reconsider the necessity and consequences of internet shutdowns to ensure a just and balanced approach to maintaining law and order.

Also read:

Internet Shutdowns in India: A Growing Concern

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