The Indian government has armed itself with powers to ‘switch off’ or kill the internet during times of national emergencies, becoming one of the first few countries to assume such far reaching authority. Even as the US and other western nations debate the judiciousness of giving the government’s complete control to shut down cyber traffic, India has moved a step ahead and incorporated a provision under the IT Act of 2008, giving the Central government, or any of its officers specially authorised by it, to block the internet if necessary. The shutdown can happen in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, its defense, security of its states, friendly relations with foreign states or for public order. Failure to comply will result in imprisonment of up to seven years.
The implications of this move are immense as it gives the government overriding powers over a fast-growing and widely used resource, and one that is becoming increasingly crucial in conducting commerce and social interaction. The country has about 70 million internet users ? a figure growing at about 25% every year. “Where the Central government or any of its officer specially authorised by it in this behalf is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to above, it may subject to the provisions of sub-sections (2) for reasons to be recorded in writing, by order direct any agency of the government or intermediary to block access by the public or cause to be blocked for access by public any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource,” 69A of the Information Technology Amendment Act, 2008 says.
The amendment was pushed through in the weeks following the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Supporters of an internet ‘kill switch’ ? as it is being popularly called ? say it will enable countries to prevent the spread of rumours and false information during times of national crisis and help coordinate a coherent response without any sign of public panic. But it can also be misused by governments to shut down legitimate protests and exercise illegal power in the face of public opposition. The governments in the North Africa and the Middle East have been resorting to this tactic during the violent protests triggered in January this year against despotic rule.
The plan has drawn predictable ire from bloggers, activists and lawyers but the government also has its supporters. “If it’s in national security’s interest, switching off the internet for a short period is not unwelcome,” says Amrita Chaudhary, director at Cyber Cafe Association of India. “It is not a bad idea to switch off the internet for security reasons. But we should distinguish between national security and privacy,” Naresh Ajwani, secretary at Internet Service Providers of India, said. Not satisfied with this provision, India is now moving ahead to develop alternate plans in case the ‘switch’ does not work. The draft plan by the Cabinet Committee on Security and Ministry of Home Affairs along with Ministry of IT & Communications to ‘choke’ the internet at will, which ET reported last year, is also learnt to be in its final stages.
Choking refers to handicapping the servers by subjecting it to multiple requests and attacks and preventing it from functioning effectively. Some experts believe that this may be easy to implement than a complete kill as the latter will be challenged in courts. “Although it may be technically possible to block the net in India, theoretically it may be very difficult given the dynamic nature of the constitution and the judiciary,” cyber law expert Pavan Duggal said. If the government decides to block the internet, it may be challenged in any Indian court and would be subject to judicial review.