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Authoritarian Tech

India leads the world in Internet shutdowns

As India enters the fifth stage of its marathon election cycle, the multi-phase ballot presents a good opportunity to look at how digital repression isn’t a phenomenon unique to authoritarian states, but also a feature of the world’s largest democracy.

A detailed report in New American Weekly explains how India now leads the world in Internet shutdowns, surpassing countries like China, Iraq and Syria. According to a tracker from the Software Law Center, there have been more than 300 reported shutdowns in Indian since 2013 — the actual number may be higher.

An Internet shutdown or blackout occurs when an official body, usually a government, disrupts the Internet or mobile networks to disable apps like WhatsApp or Twitter. The shutdown can target geographical areas or specific populations to limit the flow of information. A good example of this can be found in Coda’s reporting from Zimbabwe.

In 2017, India was the site of 70% of all global Internet shutdowns — between 2012 and 2017, shutdowns took place in Jammu & Kashmir, Rajasthan, Gujarat, West Bengal and Bihar. Regional governments first began limiting digital freedoms in 2012 when India’s rural populations seized on the potential of mobile networks to gather political and economic information. The large increase in shutdowns speak to a political desire to control access to information in an increasingly connected world.

Research also shows that shutdowns in India have had an effect on the economy. A 2018 report by Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, “The Anatomy of an Internet Blackout: Measuring the Economic Impact of Internet Shutdowns in India,” found that nearly 13,000 hours of mobile Internet shutdowns in India cost the economy approximately $2.37 billion during the years 2012-2017.

To give you some background, India’s Internet economy is expected to reach $250 billion in 2020, a figure largely driven by growth in data consumption with e-commerce and financial services cited as a key catalyst. India is already the highest ranked country in the world in mobile data consumption, far exceeding volumes recorded in China.

India’s seven-phase elections began on April 11 and the last votes will be cast on May 19 with results to be declared on May 23. Prime Minister Modi has campaigned almost exclusively on his national security record, focusing on neighboring Pakistan, following a suicide bomb attack in Kashmir.

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