India Keeps Pulling the Plug on Its Digital Economy

That’s the headline on my newest story, out Wednesday. It begins:

When Indian authorities shut down the internet across a remote northeast state in May, Amy Aribam said it wiped out the more than $9,000 in monthly revenue for her home business selling saris online.

Four months later, Aribam is back online but the internet remains down for many, and the women who weave her silk and cotton saris by hand are suffering. “We couldn’t communicate with our customers,” Aribam said. “Our business is completely online.”

Indian authorities said they pulled the plug to stop the spread of rumors as social unrest erupted in Manipur, a state governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. India’s government has increasingly shut down the internet to respond to a range of problems, including political upheaval, fugitives on the loose and even cheating on exams.

Nine years after Modi was elected, the world’s most populous democracy leads the world in internet shutdowns, according to tallies by digital-rights groups. Last year’s 84 cutoffs in various parts of the country exceeded the combined total for all other nations, including Iran, Libya and Sudan, New York-based digital rights group Access Now says. Since 2016, when the group began collecting data, India has accounted for more than half of all internet shutdowns globally.

The outages have disrupted the lives of tens of millions of people in a country where inexpensive mobile data and government efforts to facilitate mobile payments have catapulted vast numbers of consumers into the digital age in recent years. About half of India’s 1.4 billion people are now online, increasingly dependent on connectivity to communicate with friends and family, shop online, pay utility bills and more.

Digital-rights advocates say the shutdowns disproportionately affect the poor, often making it harder for them to collect food subsidies and wages through rural employment programs. They also lead to job losses, hamper online transactions and discourage foreign investment. That damps economic growth and disrupts startups and U.S. e-commerce companies, researchers say.

The prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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