The government can switch off the internet

The Indian government has armed itself with powers to ‘switch off ’ or kill the internet during times of national emergencies, becoming in the process 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 governments 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 especially 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. 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. Egypt, on January 27, became the first country to completely switch off the internet. Libyan rebels fighting the Gaddafi government have faced similar problems. 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 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 legal experts believe that this may be easy to implement than a complete kill as the latter will be challenged in courts. Simply put, if the government decides to block the internet, it may be challenged in any Indian court and would be subject to judicial review.

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