Indian state shuts down Internet for millions to prevent cheating on teachers’ exam

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A large Indian state worried about cheating in a hotly contested teacher recruitment exam took the drastic step of cutting off the Internet to millions of residents for up to 12 hours, leaving many unable to access essential services like Google Maps.

Platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter were effectively unusable most of Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, for residents of Rajasthan state, prompting a flurry of complaints from people unable to work remotely, pay for goods, or navigate without Google. India has one of the world’s largest Internet user bases, and most of them access the Internet via their cellphones. (Some people were able to access the Internet using broadband services.)

Officials told local media the suspension was necessary to “enforce law and order” and prevent fraud during the Rajasthan Eligibility Exam for Teachers – a major step toward getting a coveted position at a government-operated school. Some 1.6 million candidates reportedly sat for the exam, which was held for the first time since 2018, possibly boosting the turnout.

Cheating on exams is a significant problem in India, where competition for university places and public-sector jobs can be fierce, Indian education experts said. Other anti-cheating measures deployed Sunday included video surveillance at testing centers. Still, it didn’t stop some from trying: Ten people were arrested before the exam for allegedly trying to smuggle Bluetooth devices in their flip-flops that would transmit calls to hidden earpieces, police said.

This isn’t the first time Rajasthan has turned off the Internet: Officials also reportedly suspended access during a police constable exam in 2018. Syria and Sudan have also tightly limited access during major exams, according to Cloudflare, a tech security company.

And in 2019, Indian national officials shut down Internet access in the Kashmir Valley after revoking the state’s autonomy – a move that was decried by rights groups but that New Delhi said was necessary to maintain security in the restive territory claimed by both India and Pakistan.

“Internet shutdowns have a harrowing impact on citizens and are often disproportionate in nature,” the Software Freedom Law Center of India wrote in a Sunday letter to the chief minister of Rajasthan, a member of the Congress party.

The letter also stated that temporarily banning the Internet to prevent cheating could be a violation of local law, which allows for temporary suspension of communication services in only a limited number of circumstances.

Some local trade groups opposed the blackout, which they said would lead to financial losses as activity ground to a halt. Sunita Singhal, a 65-year-old resident of Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, told the Times of India she could not attend an online session about controlling her diabetes because of the suspension. Others complained they missed online classes and live-streamed wakes.

Authorities in Jaipur district, which has more than 6.6 million residents, urged businesses to shut on Sunday to avoid disruptions. As many as 90,000 businesses closed during the blackout, the head of a local trade federation said.

“It was a voluntary decision following the administration’s request,” Subhash Goyal told the Indian Express, adding that shops selling essential goods remained open. Over $13 million worth of business was affected, he said.

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