About the Author: The author is a 2021 graduate of National Law University, Delhi. She is currently working as a Research Associate with the Digital Media Content Regulatory Council.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Reflection Series showcasing exceptional student essays from CCG-NLUD’s Seminar Course on Technology & National Security Law. Along with a companion piece by Tejaswita Kharel, the two essays bring to a life a fascinating debate by offering competing responses to the following question:
Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s pronouncement in Anuradha Bhasin that access to the internet is an enabler of other rights, but not a fundamental right in and of itself? Why/why not? Assuming for the sake of argument, that access to the internet is a fundamental right (as held by the Kerala High Court in Faheema Shirin), would the test of reasonableness of restrictions be applied differently, i.e. would this reasoning lead to a different outcome on the constitutionality (or legality) of internet shutdowns?
Both pieces were developed in the spring semester, 2020 and do not reflect an updated knowledge of subsequent factual developments vis-a-vis COVID-19 or the ensuing pandemic.
Although it did little to hold the government accountable for its actions in Kashmir, it would be incorrect to say that the judgment of Anuradha Bhasin v. The Union of India is a complete failure. This reflection paper evaluates the lessons learnt from Anuradha Bhasin and argues in favour of access to the internet as a fundamental right, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- EXAMINING INDIA’S LEGAL POSITION ON RIGHT TO INTERNET
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Anuradha Bhasin judgement is the fact that the Government is no longer allowed to pass confidential orders to shut down the internet for a region. Moreover, the reasons behind internet shutdown orders must not only be available for public scrutiny but also be reviewed by a Committee. The Committee will need to scrutinise the reasons for the shutdown and must benchmark it against the proportionality test. This includes evaluating the pursuit of a legitimate aim, exploration of suitable alternatives, and adoption of the least restrictive measure while also making the order available for judicial review. The nature of the restriction, its territorial and temporal scope will be relevant factors to determine whether it is proportionate to the aim sought to be achieved. The court also expanded fundamental rights to extend to the virtual space with the same protections. In this regard, the Court made certain important pronouncements on the right to freedom of speech and expression. These elements will not be discussed here as they fall outside the scope of this paper.
A few months prior in 2019, the Kerala High Court recognised access to the internet as a fundamental right. Its judgement in Faheema Sharin v. State of Kerala, the High Court addressed a host of possible issues that arise with a life online. Specifically, the High Court recognised how the internet extends individual liberty by giving people a choice to access the content of their choice, free from control of the government. The High Court relied on a United Nations General Assembly Resolution to note that the internet “… facilitates vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally, thereby being an important tool to facilitate the promotion of the right to education…” – a fact that has only strengthened in value during the pandemic. The Kerala High Court held that since the Right to Education is an integral part of the right to life and liberty enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution, access to the internet becomes an inalienable right in and of itself. The High Court also recognised the value of the internet to the freedom of speech and expression to say that the access to the internet is protected under Art. 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and can be restricted on grounds consistent with Art. 19(2).
- ARGUING IN FAVOUR OF RIGHT TO INTERNET
In the pandemic, a major reason why some of us have any semblance of freedom and normalcy in our lives is because of the internet. At a time when many aspects of our day to day lives have moved online, including education, healthcare, shopping for essential services, etc. – the fundamental importance of the internet should not even be up for debate. The Government also uses the internet to disseminate essential information. In 2020 it used a contact tracing app (Aarogya Setu) which relied on the internet for its functioning. There also exists a WhatsApp chatbot to give accurate information about the pandemic. The E-Vidya Programme was launched by the Government to allow schools to become digital. In times like this, the internet is not one of the means to access constitutionally guaranteed services, it is the only way (Emphasis Added).
In this context, the right of access to the internet should be read as part of the Right to Life and Liberty under Art. 21. Therefore, internet access should be subject to restrictions only based on procedures established by law. To better understand what shape such restrictions could take, lawmakers and practitioners can seek guidance from another recent addition to the list of rights promised under Art. 21- the right to privacy. The proportionality test was laid down in the Puttaswamy I judgment and reiterated in Puttaswamy II (“Aadhaar Judgement”). In the Aadhar Judgement when describing the proportionality for reasonable restrictions, the Supreme Court stated –
“…a measure restricting a right must, first, serve a legitimate goal (legitimate goal stage); it must, secondly, be a suitable means of furthering this goal (suitability or rational connection stage); thirdly, there must not be any less restrictive but equally effective alternative (necessity stage); and fourthly, the measure must not have a disproportionate impact on the right-holder (balancing stage).” –
This excerpt from Puttaswamy II provides as a defined view on the proportionality test upheld by the court in Anuradha Bhasin. This means that before passing an order to shut down the internet the appropriate authority must assess whether the order aims to meet a goal which is of sufficient importance to override a constitutionally protected right. More specifically, does the goal fall under the category of reasonable restrictions as provided for in the Constitution. Next, there must be a rational connection between this goal and the means of achieving it. The appropriate authority must ensure that an alternative method cannot achieve this goal with just as much effectiveness. The authority must ensure that the method being employed is the least restrictive. Lastly, the internet shutdown must not have a disproportionate impact on the right holder i.e. the citizen, whose right to freedom of expression or right to health is being affected by the shutdown. These reasons must be put down in writing and be subject to judicial review.
Based on the judgment in Faheema Sharin, an argument can be made how the pandemic has further highlighted the importance of access to the internet, not created it. The reliance of the Government on becoming digital with e-governance and digital payment platforms shows an intention to herald the country in a world that has more online presence than ever before.
People who are without access to the internet right now* – people in Kashmir, who have access to only 2G internet on mobile phones, or those who do not have the socio-economic and educational means to access the internet – are suffering. Not only are they being denied access to education, the lack of access to updated information about a disease about which we are still learning could prove fatal. Given the importance of the internet at this time of crisis, and for the approaching future, where people would want to avoid being in crowded classrooms, marketplaces, or hospitals- access to the internet should be regarded as a fundamental right.
This is not to say that the Court’s recognition of this right can herald India into a new world. The recognition of the right to access the internet will only be a welcome first step towards bringing the country into the digital era. The right to access the internet should also be made a socio-economic right. Which, if implemented robustly, will have far reaching consequences such as ease of social mobility, increased innovation, and fostering of greater creativity.
*Views expressed in the blog are personal and should not be attributed to the institution.