Indian high court upholds right of access to the internet
Shirin v State of Kerala and Others, Case No. 19716 of 2019
Date of judgment: 19 September 2019
Court: High Court of Kerala, Ernakulam
The relevance of the case
The High Court of Kerala (High Court) has ruled that restrictions imposed on access to mobile phones and laptops in a college hostel were unreasonable and violated the rights of the applicant. The judgment recognised the importance of access to the internet in realising the rights to education, freedom of expression and dignity.
The applicant is a student at Sree Narayanaguru College, who was expelled from her hostel. Persons staying at the hostel were not allowed to use their mobile phones from 10 pm to 6 am within the hostel, and undergraduate students were not allowed to use their laptops in the hostel. The warden of the hostel indicated that those who did not abide by the rules would have to vacate the hostel.
The applicant made various efforts to have the rules relaxed. This resulted in her being directed to vacate the hostel, including being locked out of her room and not being allowed to take her belongings. It was also not possible for the applicant to attend her classes, as she had to travel nearly 150km each day.
The applicant argued, among other things, that she was denied her right to acquire knowledge through the internet, and that by prohibiting the use of mobile phones, she was deprived of access to a source of knowledge to her detriment, thereby affecting the quality of her education. This, the applicant argued, constituted a violation of her rights, including the right to freedom of expression.
The applicant also made reference to the budget speech of the Minister of Finance committing to make the internet accessible to all citizens in recognition of the right to the internet as a human right, and that the government is adopting a mobile-first approach for e-governance services.
Findings of the court
The High Court noted that electronic devices can have various uses: it provides facilities for interaction, exchange of ideas or group discussions; it can be used to download data or e-books, and it can be used to undertake courses. In this regard, the High Court stated that:
The mobile phones which were unheard of once and later a luxury has now become part and parcel of the day to day life and even to a stage that it is unavoidable to survive with dignity and freedom. Though initially, it was a mere replacement of land phone enabling one to connect another and talk, on the advent of the internet the connectivity became so wide.
The High Court emphasised that freedom of expression includes the right to be informed, the right to know and the feeling of protection of expansive connectivity. Further, the High Court noted that the rules of the hostel should be modified in tune with the modernisation of technology to enable students to acquire knowledge from all available sources.
While the High Court accepted that it would be open to the authorities in the hostel to supervise whether any distraction or disturbance is caused to other students by the use of mobile phones, it held further that “[t]he total restriction on its use and the direction to surrender it during study hours is absolutely unwarranted”. Notably, the High Court held that as follows:
When the Human Rights Council of the United Nations have found that right to access to the Internet is a fundamental freedom and a tool to ensure right to education, a rule or instruction which impairs the said right of the students cannot be permitted to stand in the eye of law.
The High Court noted further that rules and regulations require reforms to keep up with the advancement of technology and the importance of modern technology in day-to-day life. In conclusion, the High Court held that the restrictions imposed by the hostel were unreasonable, and ordered the respondents to re-admit the applicant without further delay.
The full judgment is accessible (via Live Law) here.
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