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NEW DELHI — The Indian government has stepped up efforts to counter fake news in the wake of a number of mob lynchings triggered by false rumors circulated on social media, and asked telecoms and internet service providers to “explore” ways of blocking Facebook, WhatsApp, and other apps during emergencies.

Under the 2000 Information Technology Act, the Department of Telecommunications has solicited ideas for selective bans from private operators such as Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular, Reliance Jio Infocomm, and Vodafone India. It has also raised the issue with state-run telecoms companies Bharat Sanchar Nigam and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam, and industry bodies like the Cellular Operators Association of India and the Internet Service Providers Association of India.

The department asked the organizations to “explore various possible options and confirm how the Instagram/Facebook/WhatsApp/Telegram and such other mobile apps can be blocked on [the] internet” in a letter seen by the Nikkei Asian Review. The document revealed that the need for technical inputs was raised at a meeting on July 4. According to a report in The Hindu newspaper, the meeting focused on blocking specific apps during emergencies rather than the internet as a whole.

Authorities have previously enforced temporary internet blackouts in certain areas, including troubled Kashmir where there is a long-standing dispute with Pakistan. In the northwest’s Rajasthan state, internet services were suspended earlier this month to prevent cheating in an examination.

The IT Act has provisions for blocking access to information on the internet in the “interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offense.”

The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India sent a written protest to the department early this month to warn that blocking mobile apps would be “excessive, unnecessary, and would greatly harm” India’s reputation for technological innovation. “Overly broad, extended, or frequent blocks would also run directly counter to the government’s stated objective of facilitating the emergence of a new Digital India,” it said. The associated chambers also noted the value of online apps to the country’s digital economy. A recent study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations valued this at over $20 billion for the year ending in March 2016. 

WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, and has more than 200 million users in India, which is its biggest market. Last week, WhatsApp rolled out a feature allowing users in the country to forward a message to only five chat lines in one go. According to the company, Indians forward more messages, photos and videos than any other people in the world. Messages are often forwarded without any checks on their provenance, helping sensational but false posts to go viral.

Problems developed for WhatsApp after fake videos and messages circulated warning people of strangers who supposedly belonged to child-trafficking or organ-harvesting rings, leading to outbreaks of violence.

According to a report on IndiaSpend, a data journalism site, there were over 60 violent mob incidents in the first half of the year relating to supposed child abductions, which resulted in 24 deaths. There were nine incidents and five deaths in the first six days of July alone. There have also been cases of vigilantism relating to cows, which the Hindu majority consider sacred. In July, a group beat a Muslim man to death on suspicion of cow smuggling. Muslims make up around 14% of India’ population of 1.3 billion.

In an interview published in The Times of India on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “I want to make it clear that mob lynching is a crime, no matter the motive. No person can, under any circumstances, take the law into his or her own hands and commit violence.”

According to Statista, a statistics portal, there will be around 371 million social network users in India by 2022 compared to 168 million in 2016. It reported that Facebook and YouTube are the most popular social networks in India, followed by messaging app WhatsApp. A joint report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and Kantar IMRB, a market research company, this year estimated that there were 481 million internet users in India at the end of 2017, forming the second highest internet user base in the world after China. The figure was expected to reach 500 million about now.

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