India likely to force Facebook, WhatsApp to identify the originator of messages

New Delhi is inching closer to recommending regulations that would require social media companies and instant messaging app providers operating in the nation to help law enforcement agencies identify users who have posted content — or sent messages — it deems questionable, two people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

India will submit the suggested change to the local intermediary liability rules to the nation’s apex court later this month. The suggested change, the conditions of which may be altered before it is finalized, currently says that law enforcement agencies will have to produce a court order before exercising such requests, sources who have been briefed on the matter said.

But regardless, asking companies to comply with such a requirement would be “devastating” for international social media companies, a New Delhi-based policy advocate told TechCrunch on the condition of anonymity.

WhatsApp executives have insisted in the past that they would have to compromise end-to-end encryption of every user to meet such a demand — a move they are willing to fight over.

The government did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening. Sources spoke under the condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to media.

Scores of companies and security experts have urged New Delhi in recent months to be transparent about the changes it planned to make to the local intermediary liability guidelines.

The Indian government proposed (PDF) a series of changes to its intermediary liability rules in late December 2018 that, if enforced, would require to make significant changes millions of services operated by anyone, from small and medium businesses to large corporate giants such as Facebook and Google.

Among the proposed rules, the government said that intermediaries — which it defines as those services that facilitate communication between two or more users and have five million or more users in India — will have to, among other things, be able to trace the originator of questionable content to avoid assuming full liability for their users’ actions.

At the heart of the changes lies the “safe harbor” laws that technology companies have so far enjoyed in many nations. The laws, currently applicable in the U.S. under the Communications Decency Act and India under its 2000 Information Technology Act, say that tech platforms won’t be held liable for the things their users share on the platform.

Many stakeholders have said in recent months that the Indian government was keeping them in the dark by not sharing the changes it was making to the intermediary liability guidelines.

Nobody outside of a small government circle has seen the proposed changes since January of last year, said Shashi Tharoor, one of India’s suavest and most influential opposition politicians, in a recent interview with TechCrunch.

Software Freedom and Law Centre, a New Delhi-based digital advocacy organization, recommended last week that the government should consider removing the traceability requirement from the proposed changes to the law as it was “technically impossible to satisfy for many online intermediaries.”

“No country is demanding such a broad level of traceability as envisaged by the Draft Intermediaries Guidelines,” it added.

TechCrunch could not ascertain other changes the government is recommending.

Equity: Uber sells its Eats business in India, Qonto raises, and Tesla says no

Good morning friends, and welcome back to TechCrunch’s Equity Monday, a short-form audio hit to kickstart your week. Equity’s regular, long-form shows still land each and every Friday, including this entry from just a few days ago.

This morning, coming to you early from the frozen tundra of the American East Coast, it’s Tuesday. That’s because yesterday was a holiday in the United States, so we took the day to work a little bit less than usual. But that doesn’t mean we’d skip an episode, so let’s dive into topics:

  • Uber is cutting its losses in India, selling its Eats business for a stake in Zomato. Zomato is well-funded, and Uber now loses less money. However, where it will find growth is thits next question.
  • Earnings season is upon us. This week Netflix, IBM, and Intel will announce their results. Naturally, those aren’t the companies that we care about the most on Equity, but they are big enough to generate quite a lot of noise. Noise that will help set market sentiment regarding technology companies, both public and private.
  • Also on the news front, Tesla is saying ‘no’ to reports that its cars accelerate without input.
  • Qonto, a French neobank, has raised a $115 million Series C. That’s a huge round for a neat company that is taking a popular model in a fresh direction.
  • Stasher is a neat company in that it must make sense, even if your humble servant doesn’t really get it. It raised $2.5 million more.
  • Captrace also put together a round, though we don’t know how large. What happens if you cross the cap table with blockchain? We may find out.
  • Finally, a reminder as to why Uber is leaving Eats in India behind. Globally, Uber Eats turned $3.66 billion in GMV into $392 million in adjusted net revenue in Q3 2019. That wound up generating -$316 million in adjusted EBITDA. Damn.

And that was all the time that we had. We’re back Friday, and Monday.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Catalyst Fund gets $15M from JP Morgan, UK Aid to back 30 EM fintech startups

The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s companies, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale payment solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets such as Nigeria, India and Mexico.

23andMe co-founder’s new startup, Precise.ly, brings genomics to India through Narayana partnership

Precise.ly, the new genomics startup launched by 23andMe co-founder Linda Avey and Aneil Mallavarapu, is taking its spin on direct to consumer personalized genomics to India through a partnership with Naryana Health, one of India’s leading specialty hospital networks.

Narayana, a company that operates a network of 24 hospitals serving 2.5 million patients, is one of the most fascinating stories in healthcare. By emphasizing efficiencies and cost savings, the hospital network has managed to bring costs down dramatically for many procedures — including providing cancer surgeries for as little as $700 and heart bypass surgeries for $3,000 (as this fascinating article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek illustrates).

Precise.ly’s mission — to collect and analyze genetic data from populations that typically haven’t had access to the services — is one that resonates in a world where the majority of research has been conducted on wealthier populations in wealthy countries. Other startups, like 54Gene, are trying to bring a similar message to the African continent.

“To date, most human genetics research has focused on European populations. But genetic insights need to be tuned to the rest of the world,” said Mallavarapu, in a statement. “We’ve assembled a team of experts who are pioneering advances in genetic analysis and its application to the huge populations of people in south Asia and beyond.” 

Some of that work is being done in concert with Narayana health, the hospital network founded by Dr. Devi Prasad Shetty nearly twenty years ago. Dr. Shetty is initially hoping that Precise.ly’s genetic database will be able to help his hospitals build out a stem cell donor registry that could help hundreds of thousands of Indians who need transplants.

“Personal genetic testing is recognized by the U.S. FDA to test genetic risk for Parkinsonism, late onset Alzheimer’s disease and celiac disease. It is only a matter of time before most diseases get added to the list,” Dr. Shetty said in a statement. “Because of the simplicity of genetic testing from saliva samples, it’s possible to conduct large-scale population screening at a reasonable cost. We are working with Precise.ly’s team of researchers to add HLA typing, which has the potential to transform cancer and other disease treatments in India.”

The path to entering the Indian market was slightly circuitous for Precise.ly. When Avey first left 23andMe, she went to RockHealth (an investor in the company’s $1 million seed round), and began exploring ways to organize and store more of a patient’s quantified health data.

As that company failed to gain traction, Avey took another look at the genetics market and found that there were significant opportunities in underserved markets — and that India, with its rising middle class and burgeoning healthcare industry would be a good target.

“We decided we would build on this Helix platform all kinds of apps for people who had specific diagnosis,” says Avey. But the market was already chock full of startups (including 23andMe), so an early investor in the company from, Civilization Ventures, and its founder Shahram Seyedin-Noor suggested that they begin to look globally for growth.

“Precise.ly’s mission is to deliver validated genetic insights to the billions of people living outside the western world. We’re initially focused on India where there are urgent health issues readily addressable through access to personal genomic data,” said Avey, the chief executive officer of Precise.ly, in a statement. “Our partnership with Narayana is vital to delivering on the promise of precise, data-driven health.” 

Over two dozen encryption experts call on India to rethink changes to its intermediary liability rules

Security and encryption experts from around the world are joining a number of organizations to call on India to reconsider its proposed amendments to local intermediary liability rules.

In an open letter to India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Thursday, 27 security and cryptography experts warned the Indian government that if it goes ahead with its originally proposed changes to the law, it could weaken security and limit the use of strong encryption on the internet.

The Indian government proposed (PDF) a series of changes to its intermediary liability rules in late December 2018 that, if enforced, would require millions of services operated by anyone from small and medium businesses to large corporate giants such as Facebook and Google to make significant changes.

The originally proposed rules say that intermediaries — which the government defines as those services that facilitate communication between two or more users and have five million or more users in India — will have to proactively monitor and filter their users’ content and be able to trace the originator of questionable content to avoid assuming full liability for their users’ actions.

“By tying intermediaries’ protection from liability to their ability to monitor communications being sent across their platforms or systems, the amendments would limit the use of end-to-end encryption and encourage others to weaken existing security measures,” the experts wrote in the letter, coordinated by the Internet Society .

With end-to-end encryption, there is no way for the service provider to access its users’ decrypted content, they said. Some of these experts include individuals who work at Google, Twitter, Access Now, Tor Project and World Wide Web Consortium.

“This means that services using end-to-end encryption cannot provide the level of monitoring required in the proposed amendments. Whether it’s through putting a ‘backdoor’ in an encryption protocol, storing cryptographic keys in escrow, adding silent users to group messages, or some other method, there is no way to create ‘exceptional access’ for some without weakening the security of the system for all,” they added.

Technology giants have so far enjoyed what is known as “safe harbor” laws. The laws, currently applicable in the U.S. under the Communications Decency Act and India under its 2000 Information Technology Act, say that tech platforms won’t be held liable for the things their users share on the platform.

Many organizations have expressed in recent days their reservations about the proposed changes to the law. Earlier this week, Mozilla, GitHub and Cloudflare requested the Indian government to be transparent about the proposals that they have made to the intermediary liability rules. Nobody outside the Indian government has seen the current draft of the proposal, which it plans to submit to India’s Supreme Court for approval by January 15.

Among the concerns raised by some is the vague definition of “intermediary” itself. Critics say the last publicly known version of the draft had an extremely broad definition of the term “intermediary,” that would be applicable to a wide-range of service providers, including popular instant messaging clients, internet service providers, cyber cafes and even Wikipedia.

Amanda Keton, general counsel of Wikimedia Foundation, requested the Indian government late last month to rethink the requirement to bring “traceability” on online communication, as doing so, she warned, would interfere with the ability of Wikipedia contributors to freely participate in the project.

A senior executive with an American technology company, who requested anonymity, told TechCrunch on Wednesday that even as the proposed changes to the intermediary guidelines need major changes, it is high time that the Indian government decided to look into this at all.

“Action on social media platforms, and instant communications services is causing damage in the real world. Spread of hoax has cost us more than at least 30 lives. If tomorrow, someone’s sensitive photos and messages leak on the internet, there is currently little they can expect from their service providers. We need a law to deal with the modern internet’s challenges,” he said.

Paytm targets merchants to fight back Google and Walmart in India’s crowded payments field

Paytm today announced two new features for businesses as the financial services firm looks to expand its reach in the nation that has quickly become one of the world’s most crowded and competitive payments markets.

The Noida-headquartered firm, which raised $1 billion in late November, said its app for businesses now features an “all-in-one” QR code system to accept payments from multiple platforms, including mobile wallets (that act as an intermediary between a user and their bank but provide convenience) and those that are powered by UPI, a payments infrastructure built by a coalition of banks that has been widely adopted by the industry players.

Merchants had expressed an interest in having one QR code that could understand any payments app, said Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the founder and chief executive of Paytm’s parent firm One97 Communications. In addition to supporting mobile wallet apps, and UPI-powered payment apps, Paytm’s new QR codes also support payments through popular Rupay cards.

Merchants can also stick these QR codes on devices such as battery packs and chargers to enable quick transaction from users, Sharma explained at a press conference today.

Bookkeeping for merchants and small businesses

The nation’s highest-valued startup (at around $16 billion) also announced a bookkeeping feature for businesses to help them maintain their daily records. The feature is already rolling out to merchants, Sharma told TechCrunch.

Dubbed Paytm Business Khata, the feature will help merchants manage payments, record transactions and secure loans and insurance. The service will also enable them to set a reminder for credit transactions, get an audio alert when they have received new payment, and send links to their customers to easily pay their dues, said Sharma.

Hundreds of millions of Indians, many in small towns and villages, came online for the first time in the last decade thanks to the proliferation of cheap Android smartphones and the availability of some of the world’s cheapest mobile data plans.

In recent years, millions of merchants and small businesses have also started to accept digital payments and listed them on the web for the first time. But most of them are still offline. Scores of startups and heavily backed firms such as Google, Walmart and Amazon are chasing this untapped market.

Google, which has amassed more than 67 million users on its payments app in India, last year announced a range of offerings to allow businesses to easily start accepting payments online. In the past, the company also launched tools to help mom and pop stores build presence on the web.

A number of startups today, including Bangalore-based Instamojo, Khatabook (which raised $25 million in October last year and counts GGV Capital, Sequoia Capital India and Tencent among its investors) and Lightspeed-backed OkCredit, which raised $67 million in August last year, offer bookkeeping features and allow their consumers to enable easier payment options.

Google Pay or GPay sticker pasted on the glass of a car in New Delhi India on 18 September 2019 (Photo by Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Paytm’s Sharma claimed that his business app has already amassed more than 10 million merchant users, a number he expects to more than double by next year.

The announcements today illustrate how aggressively Paytm, which once led the mobile payments market in India, is expanding its service. Some critics have cautioned that the firm, which counts SoftBank, Alibaba and T. Rowe Price among its key investors and has raised over $3.3 billion to date, is quickly losing its market share and chasing opportunities that could significantly increase its expenses and losses. According to several industry estimates, Google Pay and Walmart’s PhonePe now lead the mobile payments market in India.

Paytm lost more than half a billion dollars in the financial year that ended in March 2019. The trouble for the company is that there is currently little money to be made in the payments market because of some of the local guidelines set by the government.

“The current Paytm’s potential is a pale shadow of its former self. And to stay relevant, the company is entering new businesses (and failing spectacularly in some) at a pace that shows both a lack of clarity and urgency. Paytm is stuck between a glorious past that was built on the back of digital payments and a future that doesn’t look anything like Jack Ma’s Alibaba, one of Paytm’s largest investors and Sharma’s inspiration,” wrote Ashish Mishra, a long-time journalist, in a scathing post (paywalled).

Sharma said today that the company plans to offer services such as stock brokerage and insurance brokerage in the coming months. At stake is India’s payments market that is estimated to be worth $1 trillion in the next four years, up from about $200 billion currently, according to Credit Suisse. And that market is only going to get more crowded when WhatsApp, which has amassed over 400 million users in India, rolls out its payments service to all its users in the country in the coming months.

China Roundup: TikTok receives most government requests from India and US

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, TikTok, currently the world’s hottest social media app, welcomed the new decade by publishing its first transparency report as it encounters rising scrutiny from regulators around the world.

TikTok tries to demystify 

The report, which arrived weeks after it tapped a group of corporate lawyers to review its content moderation policy, is widely seen as the short video app’s effort to placate the U.S. government. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, is currently probing the app for possible national security risks.

TikTok is owned by Beijing-based tech upstart ByteDance and has been rapidly gaining popularity away from its home turf, especially in the U.S. and India. As of November, it had accumulated a total of 1.5 billion downloads on iOS and Android devices, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower, although how many materialized into active users is unknown.

The transparency report reveals the number of requests TikTok received from local regulators during the first half of 2019. Such orders include government requests to access user information and remove content from the platform. India topped the list with 107 total requests filed, followed by the U.S. with 79 requests and Japan at 35.

The numbers immediately sparked debates over the noticeable absence of China among the list of countries that had submitted requests. This could be because TikTok operates as a separate app called Douyin in China, where it claimed to have more than 320 million daily active users (in Chinese) as of last July.

TikTok has taken multiple measures to ease suspicions of international markets where it operates, claiming that it stores data of U.S. users in the U.S. and that the app would not remove videos even at the behest of Beijing’s authority.

Whether skeptics are sold on these promises remains to be seen. Meanwhile, one should not overlook the pervasive practice of self-censorship among China’s big tech.

“Chinese internet companies know so well where the government’s red line is that their self-regulation might even be stricter than what the government actually imposes, so it’s not impossible that [the TikTok report] showed zero requests from China,” a person who works at a Chinese video streaming platform suggested to me.

It’s worth revisiting why TikTok has caused a big stir on various fronts. Besides its nationality as a Chinese-owned app and breathtaking rise, the app presents a whole new way of creating and consuming information that better suits smartphone natives. It’s been regarded as a threat to Facebook and compared to Youtube, which is also built upon user-generated content. However, TikTok’s consumers are much more likely to be creators as well, thanks to lower barriers to producing and sharing videos on the platform, venture capitalist David Rosenthal of Wave Capital observed. That’s a big engagement driver for the app.

Another strength of TikTok, seemingly trivial at first sight, is the way it displays content. Videos are shown vertically, doing away the need to flip a phone. In a company blog post (in Chinese) on Douyin’s development, ByteDance recounted that most short-video apps budding in 2016 were built for horizontal videos and required users to pick from a list of clips in the fashion of traditional video streaming sites. Douyin, instead, surfaces only one video at a time, full-screen, auto-played and recommended by its well-trained algorithms. What “baffled” many early employees and interviewees turned out to be a game-changing user experience in the mobile internet age.

Douyin’s ally and enemy 

A recent change in Douyin’s domestic rival Kuaishou has brought attention to the intricate links between China’s tech giants. In late December, video app Kuaishou removed the option for users to link e-commerce listings from Taobao, an Alibaba marketplace. Both Douyin and Kuaishou have been exploring e-commerce as a revenue stream, and each has picked its retail partners. While Kuaishou told media that the suspension is due to a “system upgrade,” its other e-commerce partners curiously remain up and running.

Left: Douyin lets creators add a “shop” button to posts. Right: The clickable button is linked to a Taobao product page.

Some speculate that the Beijing-based company could be distancing itself from Alibaba and moving closer to Tencent, Alibaba’s nemesis and a majority shareholder in Kuaishou. Yunfeng Capital, a venture firm backed by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, has also funded Kuaishou but holds a less significant equity stake. That Douyin has long been working with Alibaba on e-commerce might have also been a source of discordance between Kuaishou and Alibaba.

Startups Weekly: Oyo’s toxicity + A farewell

Welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week I wrote about the startups we lost in 2019. Before that, I noted the defining moments of VC in 2019.

Unfortunately, this will be my last newsletter, as I am leaving TechCrunch for a new opportunity. Don’t worry, Startups Weekly isn’t going anywhere. We’ll have a new writer taking over the weekly update soon enough; in the meantime, TechCrunch editor Henry Pickavet will be at the helm. You can still get in touch with me on Twitter @KateClarkTweets.

If you’re new here, you can subscribe to Startups Weekly here. Lots of good content will be coming your way in 2020.


India’s WeWork?

TechCrunch reporter Manish Singh penned an interesting piece on the state of Indian startups this week: As Indian startups raise record capital, losses are widening (Extra Crunch membership required). In it, he claims the financial performance of India’s largest startups are cause for concern. Gems like Flipkart, BigBasket and Paytm have lost a collective $3 billion in the last year.

“What is especially troublesome for startups is that there is no clear path for how they would ever generate big profits,” he writes. “Silicon Valley companies, for instance, have entered and expanded into India in recent years, investing billions of dollars in local operations, but yet, India has yet to make any substantial contribution to their bottom lines. If that wasn’t challenging enough, many Indian startups compete directly with Silicon Valley giants, which while impressive, is an expensive endeavor.”

Manish’s story came one day after The New York Times published an in-depth report on Oyo, a tech-enabled budget hotel chain and rising star in the Indian tech community. The NYT wrote that Oyo offers unlicensed rooms and has bribed police officials to deter trouble, among other toxic practices.

Whether Oyo, backed by billions from the SoftBank Vision Fund, will become India’s WeWork is the real cause for concern. India’s startup ecosystem is likely to face a number of barriers as it grows to compete with the likes of Silicon Valley.

Follow Manish here or on Twitter for more of TechCrunch’s growing India coverage.


Venture capital highlights (it’s been a slow week)


How to find the right reporter to pitch your startup

If you’ve still not subscribed to Extra Crunch, now is the time. Longtime TechCrunch reporter and editor Josh Constine is launching a new series to teach you how to pitch your startup. In it he will examine embargoes, exclusives, press kit visuals, interview questions and more. The first of many, How to find the right reporter to pitch your startup, is online now.

Subscribe to Extra Crunch here.


#EquityPod

tc equity podcast ios 2 1

Another week, another new episode of TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, Equity. This week, we discussed a few of 2019’s largest scandals, Peloton’s strange holiday ad and the controversy over at the luggage startup Away. Listen here and be sure to subscribe, too.

For anyone wondering about changes at Equity following my departure from TechCrunch, the lovely Alex Wilhelm (founding Equity co-host) will keep the show alive and, soon enough, there will be a brand new co-host in my place. Please keep supporting the show and be sure to recommend it to all your podcast-adoring friends.

India gets more aggressive with internet shutdowns to curb protests

India, the world’s largest democracy, continues to normalize shutting down internet and suspending mobile communications for tens of millions of citizens in the country to thwart protests.

Days after Narendra Modi -led government shut down mobile communications in the northeastern states of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura (yet to be restored) — home to more than 36 million people — and then parts of Uttar Pradesh (yet to be restored), the most populated state in the country with more than 200 million people, New Delhi moved on Thursday to extend the suspension in parts of the Indian capital and city of Mangalore — together home to about 22 million people.

On Thursday morning, a trio of top three telecom networks — Reliance Jio, Vodafone and Airtel — began to cut mobile communications in parts of New Delhi. All three carriers said they were following government’s direction.

By afternoon (local time), the services had been restored, users said. But hours later, the Indian government — which already has the worst track record among any nation for internet shutdowns — issued a similar direction for Mangalore, a major commercial center in the state of Karnataka.

The move comes as the Indian government attempts to silence tens of millions of people across the nation as they protest the introduction of a controversial new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims.

New Delhi passed the bill last week, which creates a path to citizenship for immigrants of all the major religions except Islam. The new law is part of a series of actions the Modi government has taken this year that critics say erodes the country’s secular traditions.

A large number of people, most of whom were students, marched in the streets Thursday in parts of New Delhi, Mumbai, Mangalore and several others corners of India to urge the government to change its mind. At least two people were shot dead in Mangalore, according to local media reports.

Protesters with posters and placards during a demonstration against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) near Red fort on December 19, 2019 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In an op-ed piece, The New York Times criticized the government’s actions. “The not-so-hidden message [in the new law] is that the Muslim-majority countries abutting India persecute Hindus and other minorities, and that Muslims from such countries cannot be refugees — even people like the Rohingya, some of whom have reached India after fleeing to Bangladesh from brutal repression in Myanmar,” the article said.

“The law, as India’s 200 million Muslims have correctly surmised, has nothing to do with helping migrants and everything to do with the campaign by Mr. Modi and his home minister, Amit Shah, to marginalize Muslims and turn India into a homeland for Hindus, who comprise about 80 percent of the population of 1.3 billion,” it added.

A number of local film stars and other public figures joined the protest Thursday, but a group that was nowhere to be found was the startup ecosystem. A prominent angel investor in India, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told TechCrunch that startup founders and venture capitalists in the country are unlikely to join the conversation as they do not want to risk upsetting government officials.

Tim Draper, one of the most influential venture capitalists in the world and who has been exploring India for sometime, however, had enough. “India choosing one religion over another makes me seriously concerned about my plans to fund businesses there,” he tweeted.

Preventing people from a medium that enables them to stay in touch with one another, and access news and information, is becoming a common phenomenon in several nations, though none come close to India.

Access Now, a digital rights group, reported earlier this year that India alone had about 134 of 196 documented shutdowns in 2018. According to Internet Shutdowns, a service operated by New Delhi-based digital advocacy group Software Law and Freedom Centre, there have been about 95 documented cases of internet shutdowns in India this year, up from 91 last week.

The new wave of tough measures comes as New Delhi maintained an internet shutdown in parts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir for the 137th day on Thursday — the longest-ever imposed in a democracy. The internet shutdown in the Muslim-majority state was imposed on August 5, after the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood.

India’s move has won it at least one fan, though. Chinese state media said earlier this week that this practice in India, which America has seen as an example of democracy in Asia since the 1950s, means that “shutting down the internet in a state of emergency should be standard practice for sovereign countries.”

“India did not hesitate to shut down the internet in these two states to cope when there is a significant threat to national security. When China’s Xinjiang region faced a similar national security threat a few years ago, the Chinese government responded with a similar strategy. However, it attracted sharp criticism from mainstream media in Europe and the U.S.”

Universal Acceptance is the first-mover advantage that may be worth billions

Your expanding global business is leaving money on the table if its systems aren’t compatible with web addresses that have extensions such as .世界 or .ОНЛАЙН (.world and .online in Chinese and Russian, respectively). This missed opportunity has been growing for some time; a 2017 study concluded that an ecommerce market worth nearly $10 billion dollars annually is up for grabs — and that is a conservative estimate.

To understand why, consider these two facts:

First, the version of the Latin alphabet you are reading now is used by just more than a third of the world population. That number is dwarfed by the billions of people who read and write every day in Chinese, Arabic, Cyrillic, Devanagari or other scripts. These are being used in regions where population growth, economic growth and internet adoption all outpace global averages.

Second, recent innovations in how we navigate the internet have made domain names in diverse alphabets available to the majority of the world who use them. In 2012, there were only 22 so-called generic domain names (with familiar extensions like .com or .edu). That number now stands at more than 1,500.
Such innovation effectively brings an end to the era in which, say, a Japanese web surfer needs to toggle their keyboard to type a “www” or “.com,” because the entire domain name can now be written in Japanese.

This change is a big deal across rapidly growing markets worldwide, but particularly in Asia, where multilingualism is not widespread and new users on smartphones are key drivers of digital and economic growth. Even today, only a tiny percentage of all web addresses are expressed in Chinese characters, though Mandarin Chinese speakers make up nearly one-fifth of the world’s internet user population.

Even more relevant for the next wave of online consumers is that along with new domain names come email addresses in different scripts. A growing online population is using these addresses to sign up for services or sign into platforms.

This is why smart, global companies — and companies with global aspirations — are taking action to eliminate a major blind spot. Many software developers and corporate leaders reside in the English speaking or “Latin alphabet” parts of the world and the internet works pretty smoothly for them; therefore, they have not taken the important step of upgrading their software applications to accept all domain names equally. This step is a best practice referred to as “Universal Acceptance” of domain names and email addresses.

When systems are not Universal Acceptance ready, people using domain names or email addresses in different scripts cannot successfully use these systems, because the domain names and email addresses are not recognized as “valid.” This means lost business opportunities. Code libraries already exist in programming languages like Java and Python, often making this task the equivalent of a “bug fix;” however, it is a fix with huge implications.

To get a sense of the importance of Universal Acceptance, consider India. It has one of the fastest growing internet user populations on the planet and provides an illuminating case study.

As fast as internet adoption may be in India, in rural India it is faster still. The internet user base in India recently exceeded 500 million and is likely to reach 627 million by 2020. Two-fifths of users are located in rural areas. Consider also that India has 22 official languages and most users are on mobile devices.

In the Indian state of Rajasthan, the state government recently offered each of its 69 million residents free email addresses in both Hindi and English, while directing online public services to be Universal Acceptance ready (i.e. 100% available in Hindi). This required an intensive, 30-day push by developers to be compliant, and now residents can use their same Hindi email addresses to access an array of online platforms and services. Are some of these residents of Rajastan your future customers?

Microsoft is among the companies in the forefront of such compatibility. Last year it announced Email Address Internationalization (EAI) across most of its email platforms in an impressive 15 languages spoken across India. As Meetul Patel, COO of Microsoft India said:

“Ensuring that language is not a barrier to the adoption of technology is key for digital inclusion and growth. Making email addresses available in 15 languages is an exciting step to making modern communications and collaboration tools more accessible and easier to use for all – something we have been relentlessly working towards. We’re making technology use the language of people, and not requiring people to first learn the traditional language of technology.”

Despite such advantages, there is still a lot of work ahead. A recent review of the top 1,000 websites around the world found that only about five percent accepted all of the email address variations now in use.

Bringing systems up to date with Universal Acceptance is an easy way to make the internet more accessible for the billions of people whose languages are written in different scripts, making it a treasured cause of digital inclusion advocates. However, for any business seeking new global markets, it is a key competitive differentiator in an era of global online platforms, from direct e-commerce to the sharing economy. This is one first-mover advantage that may be worth billions.