India is cutting people off from the internet in the middle of an election

Hong Kong (CNN Business) India is in the middle of the world's largest election, with more than 900 million people eligible to vote between April 11 and May 19. Despite this grand exercise in political freedom, some Indians are being denied access to the internet for days at a time as they prepare to cast their ballots. 

Since voting began last month, shutdowns of mobile internet have been reported in the Indian states of Rajasthan, West Bengal and Indian-administered Kashmir, according to the Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), adding to more than 30 recorded already in 2019.

According to the SFLC, on April 18, authorities in the Srinagar and Udhampur districts of Indian-administered Kashmir suspended mobile internet access during polling "as a precautionary measure to maintain law and order."

Law and order was also cited as a reason for cutting off mobile internet a couple of days later in Rajasthan's Sikar district. The majority of Indians access the internet via mobile devices.

This is in keeping with a massive uptick in internet shutdowns — both mobile and full access — in India in recent years. The number has risen from 79 in 2017 to more than 130 last year.

Rakesh Maheshwari, a spokesman for India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, said that internet shutdowns were normally carried out by state authorities due to "law and order scenarios." Maheshwari did not respond to questions about whether the national government has issued guidance about maintaining internet access during the election period.

The trend raises major concerns about India's commitment to internet freedom, particularly during an election when people's access to information is even more important than usual.

"Internet shutdowns disrupt daily lives of residents of an affected area. They pose as a barrier to the exercise of human rights," said SFLC analyst Sukarn Singh Maini. "A functional democracy depends on the ability of citizens to exercise their freedom of speech, including the ability to freely access information."

Disruptions can also cause economic damage. According to a 2018 study by the Delhi-based think tank ICRIER, a combined 16,315 hours of internet shutdowns between 2012 and 2017 cost the India economy upwards of $3 billion.

"As our lives move online, businesses, educational institutions and the government itself has grown to rely on the internet for everyday tasks," Maini said. "Students faced with deadlines for filling an online application to pursue higher education have sometimes found themselves unable to fill such an application because of an ongoing internet shutdown."

WhatsApp worries 

Indian authorities have justified internet restrictions on the grounds of preserving public safety, amid widespread fears of mob and vigilante violence.

In July last year, a 2,000-person strong mob attacked a group of men who they accused of attempting to abduct children, killing one of them. It was just one of multiple lynchings connected to rumors and disinformation shared on social media, and it led to urgent calls to introduce new controls on fake news.

In the lead up to the election, serious concerns were raised over how WhatsApp and other platforms could be used to potentially affect the results, either by spreading disinformation about candidates or whipping up angry mobs around polling days. The Facebook(FB)-owned app has responded by limiting the ability of users to forward messages and broadcast to massive groups.

"We have engaged with political parties to explain our firm view that WhatsApp is not a broadcast platform and is not a place to send messages at scale, and to explain to them that we will be banning accounts that engage in (suspicious) behavior," the company's spokesman Carl Woog told reporters in New Delhi earlier this year.

For authorities in many parts of India, this isn't enough, and they've turned to another solution to disinformation spreading online: cutting off the internet.

"The intended aim is often to curb rumors that could incite violence. However, we've seen multiple instances of shutdowns for other reasons such as prevention of cheating in examinations," Maini said. "Even if the reason for a shutdown is to curb violence, there has been no proof so far that this works. In the absence of internet, people have no way to verify the authenticity of offline rumors."

Similar concerns were raised last month after authorities in Sri Lanka cut off access to Facebook and WhatsApp in the wake of coordinated suicide bombings which left more than 240 people dead. While Sri Lankan authorities justified the ban on the basis of preventing the spread of fake news and preventing additional violence, disinformation continued to spread in the wake of the attacks, and many people were left cut off from information or unable to communicate with their family at a critical period.

Subhodeep Jash, a fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation, said that the ongoing escalation of internet shutdowns in India was part of a broader trend of New Delhi "clamping down on online freedoms and increasing levels of censorship."

He pointed to other incidents, such as the recent temporary blocking of Chinese app TikTok, as signs of India's growing skepticism about the open internet, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government invests heavily in the tech sector.

"The rapid increase in the number of shutdowns in India over the last several years speaks to a deeper state desire to exercise control over a medium that has dramatically increased... access to information within and beyond the country's borders," Jash wrote recently.

James Griffiths