The Kerala High Court’s ruling that the right to access the Internet is a fundamental right has expanded the scope of citizens’ freedom as defined in the Constitution and recognised the role of Internet as an enabler and an important tool of empowerment. The court held that it is part of the right to privacy under Article 21 and of the right to education. It also held that any rule or instruction that impairs the right of students to use Internet is illegal and liable to be struck down. The ruling was given on a petition filed by a girl student who had been expelled from her hostel in a Kozhikode college for violating the rule laid down by the management on the use of mobile phones. The hostel had disallowed the use of phones and laptop computers during certain hours.
The court cited UN Human Rights Council recommendations which underlined the basic nature of the right to Internet and the Supreme Court judgment in the Vishakha case to buttress its ruling. It made an important observation that in the absence of an enacted domestic law in the field, international conventions and norms can be read into the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The implication is that though there is no specific law on Internet freedom in the country, the UN General Assembly’s 2014 declaration of the Internet as a human right has the force of law. The court also accepted the contention that curtailing the use of the Internet amounted to violation of the right to freedom of speech and expression. Any curb on it would go against the right to know and thus deprive citizens of the right to education. In the case, the only restriction the court thought it was fit to impose was that the use of mobile phones by one student should not cause disturbance to other students.
The judgment is bound to have implications that go beyond hostels and similar other spaces. The use of the Internet is curbed by the government in many public spaces and access to it is sometimes denied even within the precincts of home. The UN Human Rights Council has affirmed that the same human rights that people have offline must be protected online. Such assertions and the court’s ruling should help put an end to arbitrary decisions and discriminatory practices resorted to by governments and others to deny the use of the Internet to citizens. The ruling will also be relevant in Kashmir where the right to the Internet has been denied for over two months as part of the communication blockade imposed in the wake if scrapping of Article 370 of the Constitution.