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Growing unease as India curbs the net to keep the peace

By Rahul Bhatia

MUMBAI (Reuters) - First he tried messaging friends, but WhatsApp was down. Then, the credit card readers at his clothing store weren't working. Ride-sharing apps were offline too.

Harsh Madhok, who runs a clothing business in Jaipur, a city of three million people, had read about internet shutdowns elsewhere in India.

Now he was in the middle of one in his city in central India, as authorities tried to damp down unrest following a traffic incident that led to clashes between police and locals.

"It's very frustrating," said Madhok, 45, of the Sept. 9 shutdown. "These things leave you feeling like you don't know what's going on."

Under the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India's Hindu nationalist leader, Internet shutdowns have escalated sharply in the world's largest democracy.

According to a database maintained by the Software Freedom Law Centre, an online advocacy group in New Delhi, government officials ordered shutdowns 42 times between January and August in 2017. That compares with six times in all of 2014, when Modi first came to power.

This year the shutdowns were spread over 11 states, compared to just one in 2012.

The disconnections, which state governments have said are necessary for maintaining public order, typically happen without official explanation.

They have followed farmer agitations, protests by a minority community calling for government jobs, and public violence sparked by a Facebook post.

The frequency of the shutdowns has raised concerns that internal security is being used as a justification to clamp down on freedom of expression. That refrain has been heard more frequently since Modi's party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won elections in 2014 with an emphasis on security.

“If citizens are using the internet to mobilize themselves, then how is shutting down the internet any different from suppressing dissent?” an editorial in Mint asked in July.

Until this year, shutdowns were implemented under colonial-era curfew laws that were used as the basis for rules requiring internet service providers to shut off connections at the request of any government agency.

In early August, the Ministry of Communications issued new explicit rules that formalized the power of states and the central government to block the internet.

"These rules are among the first of their kind in a democracy," said Raman Jit Singh Chima, policy director of Access Now, a U.S.-based organization that works on technology policy and digital rights worldwide. "How they're used, and their scale - they seem to be creating an architecture where blocking is legitimized," Chima said.

"What's changed, I think, is that officials have greater knowledge of the power they can utilize," said Apar Gupta, a lawyer who handles free-speech cases before the Supreme Court.

Other countries, such as Egypt, have also used internet shutdowns, and China controls the flow of online information through an extensive firewall.

However, analysts like Chima worry about the frequency of the shutdowns in India, which have risen sharply since Modi came to power.

From January 2012 – the date of the first shutdown recorded by the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) – to May 2014, when the BJP swept out the ruling coalition headed by the Congress party, local and federal officials ordered 12 shutdowns.

Since Modi's election, 89 shutdowns have been ordered, with 74 at the behest of his party or its allies at the central, state and district levels, an analysis of SFLC data showed.

So far, the shutdowns have been met with little opposition, apart from frustration expressed by users like Madhok over the curtailing of online services.

"There's been no outcry about the shutdowns because it's perceived to be for the greater good," said Nitin Pai, the co-founder of the Takshashila Institution, a Bangalore think tank.

Nalin Kohli, a national spokesman for the BJP, said the shutdowns were acceptable in cases "where rumor-mongering or motivated misinformation could lead to the incitement of violence." He added: "It is not the norm, it is the exception."

In Jaipur, the shutdown lasted two days. But disconnections can last hours, weeks, and even months.

In a June statement, Human Rights Watch said "the authorities in Jammu and Kashmir suspended mobile internet services in the Kashmir region from July to November" in 2016.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the restrictions in the Kashmir region, where 100 people have died in clashes since troops killed a militant leader in July 2016, had "the character of collective punishment."

In 2016, Gupta, the lawyer, argued before India's Supreme Court on behalf of a law student who had earlier approached the Gujarat High Court to restrict internet shutdowns. The High Court disagreed, saying that officials used their powers responsibly.

The Supreme Court declined to hear the matter, letting the high court's verdict stand.

(Reporting by Rahul Bhatia. Editing by Tom Lasseter and Philip McClellan)