Internet Shutdowns: An Alibi of a Democracy

Published On: 14th January, 2023

Authored By: Anusha
Campus Law Centre, Delhi University


An internet shutdown refers to the deliberate disruption or suspension of internet services within a specific geographical area, often implemented by government authorities or other entities controlling telecommunications infrastructure. During an internet shutdown, access to the internet is either severely restricted or completely cut off for the affected population. This disruption can be temporary or prolonged, ranging from a few hours to days, weeks, or even longer.

In an era dominated by digital connectivity, the Internet has become an indispensable tool for communication, commerce, education, and exchanging ideas. However, the intentional disruption of internet services, commonly known as internet shutdowns, seriously threatens the fundamental principles of freedom, democracy, and progress. This article delves into the multifaceted implications of internet shutdowns, examining their impact on freedom of expression, the economy, education, healthcare, and more.


An Internet shutdown may be defined as a conscious and willful suspension or aborting of access to Internet services or any electronic communications by the government authorities rendering them ineffective and unusable for a specific group of people or within a geographical location. The reason for taking such a drastic step is claimed to be to prevent the spread of false information to maintain public decorum to ensure national security or to control the flow of information during political events, protests, and civil unrest as a measure to maintain political stability. The Government has very slyly regarded internet shutdown in such areas and regions as an operation towards crisis management.

In such circumstances, there can be a complete internet outage wherein the access to the internet can be interrupted in its entirety or access to certain services such as access to mobile communications, social media or websites may be blocked or deliberate reduction in the speed of the internet limiting the bandwidth for particular websites, also known as throttling.


Access Now and #KeepItOn coalition’s report released on 28th of February, 2023 named ‘Weapons of control, shields of impunity: Internet Shutdowns in 2022’ revealed that out of a total of 187 shutdowns, there were 84 instances of internet disruptions from India alone which accounts for approximately 58% of all documented shutdowns globally as was published in the Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project.[1] For a fifth consecutive year, India is the world’s largest offender, out of all democracies, in terms of enforcing deliberate internet shutdowns and continues to carry the tag of being the ‘Shutdown Capital of the World’. The only other G20 nation to have shut down the internet more than twice is India. These figures suggest that India is the worst perpetrator of internet shutdowns.

There has been a steady progression in the number of internet shutdowns over the past seven years where the incidents of internet shutdowns stood at 30 while the numbers peeked in 2018 where these incidents were at a whopping 134. Compared to these numbers, we could say that 2022 was a better year in terms of internet shutdowns for India, but there is a greater likelihood of several internet shutdowns not being documented by the Central Government’s denial to publish shutdown orders. “It is surprising to note that records related to internet shutdowns ordered by State Governments are not maintained by either the Department of Technology or Ministry of Home Affairs and both the Ministries/Departments are not aware of the number of internet shutdowns imposed by the States,” stated Prataprao Jadhav, a member of the Lok Sabha, chairing the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communication and Information Technology.


Prior to 2017, the power to suspend internet services was endowed to the State Governments wherein orders for shutdown could be passed only in emergencies of public nuisance under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. The requirement of immediate prevention and speedy remedy was mandated to avert the endangering of human life. Nevertheless, the inordinate use of this provision and the shameless ignorance of the urgency mandated in this section has rendered the provision redundant.

Post 2017, internet shutdowns in India were primarily rooted in Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 which associated the shutdown of telecommunication services, including internet services with phrases like ‘public emergency’ or ‘in the interest of public safety’. This act gave the legal basis to authorities to issue an order for the shutdown of internet services. The Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 was introduced to provide a more specific and updated framework for the suspension of telecom services, building upon the existing provisions of the Indian Telegraph Act, of 1885.

This Act has several shortcomings and loopholes that are frequently abused or improperly followed, which causes an unwarranted and sudden internet outage. Even though Acts and Statutes govern the process of instituting internet shutdowns in India, there is a lack of openness and appropriate rationale. There is a legislative gap created through the absence of transparency and other prevailing challenges under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 and its amendment in 2020, which violate the fundamental right to exercise freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India.[2]


  1. National Security- Governments argue that such measures need to be taken to maintain national security in situations of imminent threats or civil unrest. The objective is to prevent the spread of false information or the organization of illegal activities. For example in 2019, the Indian government revoked the special autonomy status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370.
  2. Preventing Social Unrest- Governments may order internet shutdowns to suppress protests, riots, or other forms of social unrest. By restricting communication channels, they aim to limit the organization and coordination of protesters and irregular assembly of several people. Such measures were taken in Delhi during the farmer’s protest in 2021. The government imposed an internet shutdown in areas surrounding the protest sites concerning the potential misuse of social media to incite violence and disrupt public order. Another such shutdown was imposed during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019 where the authorities stated that measures were required to be taken to maintain public tranquility and prevent the spread of rumors.
  3. Public Safety- During times of crisis, such as natural disasters, authorities may implement an internet shutdown to control the flow of information and prevent panic or the spread of misinformation.
  4. Election Security- Some governments may order internet shutdowns during elections to prevent the spread of misinformation, fake news, or interference from external actors. This is done to ensure fair and transparent electoral processes.
  5. Preventing Cheating in Exams- In some cases, authorities have shut down the internet during academic exams to prevent cheating and maintain the integrity of the examination process like in Rajasthan in 2020 during the Rajasthan Civil Services Examination when the government ordered internet shutdown to prevent cheating.


There are manifold impacts of such disruptions in internet services. It is a shame that a country that prides itself on its digital initiatives continues to record the maximum number of internet shutdowns across the world.

  1. Violation of Freedom of Expression: Article 19(1)(a) provides the citizens of India with the Right to freedom and expression, the violation of which is caused by to unprecedented shutdown of the internet. In the present digital age, the internet serves as a medium of communication and a platform to express one’s creativity, innovation, and opinions. The open discourse of information serves as a necessity for a prospering democracy.
  2. Economic Disruptions: Due to the high reliability of internet services, a lot of businesses and ongoing concerns are dependent on digital payments and online connectivity for their smooth functioning. Shutting down of internet leads to huge financial losses and hinders economic growth. This leads to a significant slowdown in the day-to-day operations of the businesses followed by halting of their business activities. Financial businesses and E-commerce face the largest threat as their dealings are based on the digital and real-time market losing the ability to meet the needs of the customers and affecting the orders.
  3. Education: Education has slowly shifted to an online medium, with all the sources and materials now being available readily on websites. Moreover, even schools have started preferring online classes and uploading the majority of the study materials online for easy and hassle-free access by the students. Sadly, these sources are hardly accessible due to throttling leading to the loss of time and efforts of students who spent their blood, sweat, and tears on education.
  4. Healthcare: Nowadays, the healthcare sector is highly dependent on the Internet for data sharing and communication. The hospitals have also started providing telemedicine services which become vulnerable to internet disruptions. Access to critical healthcare is hampered, and the delivery of healthcare services is compromised.
  5. Social and cultural Impact: social media and online platforms serve as vital avenues for social interaction, cultural expression, and community building. Internet shutdowns disrupt these connections, leading to a sense of isolation and detachment within communities, hindering cultural exchange and cohesion. Internet connectivity has become and will continue to be essential for the realization of the rights to social security, education, health, employment, and the right to food, among other rights, as governments continue to digitize and automate basic social security programs.[3]


In the case of Faheema Shirin v. State of Kerala & Ors., the Kerala High Court held that the right to access the internet is a fundamental right forming a part of the right to privacy and the right to education under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The court emphasized that any order to suspend the Internet should comply with the principles of proportionality and necessity.[4]

The Supreme Court, in the case of Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, emphasized that Article 19(1)(a) protects the right to speak and express through the medium of the Internet and mandates periodic review of suspension orders. The primary reason for this judgment was the ambiguity related to The Suspension Rules of 2017 following the prolonged internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir.  Therefore, the right of access to the internet was included in the Fundamental Rights and mandated the authorities to provide a thorough justification and requirement of an unavoidable circumstance to order a shutdown. [5]


In conclusion, internet shutdowns are not mere inconveniences; they represent a grave threat to the fabric of democratic societies and the principles of human rights. Ironically, India is the second country after China that has the most internet users and is also the country that has issued the most number of internet shutdowns in the world.  The situation in India, with a large number of internet users and a significant frequency of internet shutdowns, does present an interesting and somewhat ironic juxtaposition. The irony lies in the fact that while India has a vibrant and rapidly growing digital landscape, it has also been at the forefront of implementing internet shutdowns, often for reasons related to national security, public order, or other concerns. Despite a Supreme Court order, and repeated parliamentary recommendations, governments have normalized shutdowns, and federal authorities have refused to create even the most basic mechanisms for transparency and accountability. Considering the digital era prevalent in Indian society and increased censorship of the internet in a democracy like India, a balance needs to be struck between the interest of the citizens whose fundamental rights are being violated and the State which is disproportionately infringing our rights by implementing shutdowns for banal reasons and applying arbitrary legal provisions.


[1] India Remains Internet Shutdown Capital of the World for Fifth Year Running.” The Wire,

[2] LawBhoomi. “Critical Analysis of Internet Shutdowns in India and Their Impact on Fundamental Rights.” LawBhoomi, 5 July 2021,

[3] Bajoria, Jayshree. “‘No Internet Means No Work, No Pay, No Food.’” Human Rights Watch, June 2023. Human Rights Watch,

[4] Faheema Shirin R.K v. State of Kerala & Ors. WP(C).No.19716 OF 2019(L)

[5] Anuradha Bhasin v Union of India AIR 2020 SC 1308.

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