In yet another government move to regulate social media, the telecom department has asked internet and telecom service providers to explore possible options for blocking mobile applications, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram, in situations where national security and public order are under threat. However, firms and experts say the government needs to focus on stricter implementation of rules on the ground instead of clamping down on internet services.
On 18 July, the Department of Telecom wrote a letter to Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) and Internet Service Providers, asking for their views on how to block the applications under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. The law authorises the central government or any officer authorised by it to issue direction to block information on the internet 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 them.
The issue was raised for the first time in a meeting between the operators and the department on 4 July, wherein technical inputs were sought from the companies to explore the possibility of blocking of certain mobile.
Internet Service Providers Association has supported the government move and will respond to the government soon. Rajesh Chharia, President of Internet Service Providers Association said, “If these service providers…the social media apps want to work in the country, they have to obey the laws of the land. If they bypass rules and national security then there is no other option than blocking them immediately”
But telecom companies have opposed the move in their response. Rajan Mathews,Director General of Cellular Operators Association of India said,”Trying to shutdown an application that is widely used may not be the best way to proceed. It is impossible to shut it down in a surgical manner. Unintended consequences will happen because innocent people may be disenfranchised because of the malacious activities of a few people.”
Activists for internet freedom claim the government should focus on implementation of laws on the ground instead of controlling internet. Raman Chima, member of Internet Freedom Foundation said,”The government needs to focus more on working with agencies across India, especially with state governments on firstly investigation and prosecuting those inciting violence. Not a single prosecution has taken place in these cases. You need to focus on the point of providing valid true information to counter false and targeted disinformation. If you bloack of the entire internet or mobile applications you starve people from being able to learn the truth.”
This is the government’s third move in the last 6 months to regulate social media. Earlier the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had withdrawn its proposal to clampdown on journalists for fake news and the proposal for government social media communication hub that was aimed at monitoring individual social media accounts.