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Suspension of net services on House IT panel’s radar

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The parliamentary panel on information technology (IT) on Tuesday asked the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to develop a framework for reviewing suspension of internet services in a region, including the time within which this will be done.

The panel’s observations came in the backdrop of a high-speed internet shutdown that has been in place in the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir for over a year now, and on the day the Centre said that it would lift restrictions on high-speed 4G mobile internet services in one district each of Jammu and Kashmir divisions after August 15 on a trial basis.

The comments also come against the background of an increase in the number of Internet shutdowns in the country — usually for law and order, or security considerations. According to the Software Freedom Law Centre, 385 Internet shutdowns were recorded between January 2012 and March 15, 2020; 237 were observed to be preventive — restrictions were imposed in anticipation of law and order problems and 148 were reactive and imposed to contain ongoing breakdowns. Of these, nearly 100 incidents were recorded in 2019.

Most shutdowns were localised, extending to a district or a few districts, and, in the rare case, a state or union territory.

The decision to restrict access to Internet in J&K came in August last year after the Centre decided to strip the erstwhile state of its special status and divide it into two Union territories.

The central government has cited national security grounds for blocking high-speed 4G Internet services in the region. The Centre filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court on July 21, saying a special panel constituted as per the latter’s May 11 order has decided against any relaxations for now. It added the panel constituted for the review on June 10 considered all aspects of the matter, including terror strikes, before deciding to continue the restrictions on 4G services.

According to members of Parliament who participated in the meeting, the issue was discussed at length, including Supreme Court proceedings wherein the Centre said Internet services would be “gradually restored “in J&K after August 15 . Congress leader and chairperson of the IT panel, Shashi Tharoor, tweeted that the meeting lasted for over an hour.

“The internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir was on the agenda,” said a member of Parliament (MP) present at the meeting. “It wasn’t a topic that was raised separately.”

A second MP present at the meeting asked: “How can one pick and choose which areas one can provide internet to?”

According to a third MP, the issue of whether DoT has the powers to do this was also discussed. Law and order, it was pointed out, was a state subject.

All three MPs spoke on condition of anonymity

The Centre has also set up a committee under the home secretary to constantly review the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir as it mulls restoring 4G telecom services on a “trial basis.”

Those present at the meeting said that Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Mahua Moitra and Congress MP Shaktisinh Gohil both stressed the need for the government to follow the Supreme Court’s directives and implement the changes.

“Even the SC has said that provisions imply that the ban can only be ‘temporary’, then how can it last this long,” said the second MP.

Gohil declined to comment because the proceedings of the Parliamentary panel are supposed to be confidential. Hindustan Times reached out to Moitra, but she hadn’t responded before press time.

The first MP said that a BJP MP also raised the point that Jammu and Kashmir did not get access to mobile services till 2003, despite the services being launched in 1995 in the rest of the country. “But we are talking about the present situation, the situation is different, the debates are different, our understanding of human rights has changed.”

The panel also discussed the setting up of 5G networks across the country, the latest technology project to be taken up by DoT.

The MPs also discussed India’s capability to produce the equipment locally.

“Atmanirbhar Bharat {Self-Reliant India} does not mean just assembling products in India,” said the first MP. “We have to move towards producing all the components in India as well.”

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