The Indian government is tightening its grip on the internet through new powers and legislation that allow authorities to intercept messages, break encryption, and shut down telecoms networks. Over the past few years, the government has resorted to internet blackouts over 100 times, banned over 200 YouTube channels, and tightened controls over online content.
The government is also planning to introduce more legislation, which could reshape the Indian internet and create a less free and pluralistic space for the country’s 800 million users. Lawyers, digital rights activists, and journalists believe that the move could force changes at big tech companies and set norms and precedents for how the internet is governed.
The Indian government’s Big Tech battle began with a dispute over farm laws. In 2020, tens of thousands of farmers marched on Delhi to protest proposed agricultural reforms. The movement was mirrored online, with farmers and unions using social media platforms to galvanize support. As the protests swelled, the government asked Twitter to take down accounts that it said were spreading misinformation and issued several legal notices demanding that hundreds of accounts be disabled. Twitter complied in some cases but refused to take action against accounts that belonged to media, journalists, activists, and politicians.
The government announced the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, a set of laws governing tech platforms in February 2021. The rules included a requirement that social media companies appoint three Indian residents as full-time executives to be held accountable in the event of a dispute. Platforms were given three months to comply, and they would risk losing their status as intermediaries if they failed to do so. Google and Meta rushed to comply, but Twitter missed the deadline. According to the government, the company temporarily lost its intermediary status, making it briefly liable for the content posted on its platform.
Over the past year, the Indian government has banned over 200 YouTube channels, accusing them of spreading disinformation or threatening national security. The government has also worked hard to keep Indians from watching the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question. The documentary examines Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in deadly riots in the West Indian state of Gujarat in 2002. Screenings at universities have been banned, and clips of the documentary itself have been removed from Twitter and YouTube after the Indian government cited controversial emergency powers.
The government’s multidimensional squeeze on the internet has left some YouTubers and journalists uncertain about where the red lines are. Akash Banerjee, a seasoned journalist who runs The Deshbhakt, a satirical YouTube channel covering politics and international affairs, has nearly 3 million regular viewers. Banerjee is unsure whether he’s allowed to talk about the BBC documentary on his YouTube channel. He’s self-censoring for the time being, holding off on posting anything about the drama that has gripped Indian politics for weeks.
Digital rights activists and lawyers are concerned that the Indian government’s plans to expand its powers will create a less free and pluralistic space for Indian internet users. These proposals could “empower the executive to issue rules on a broad range of issues, which could be used to solidify unilateral power.” says Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific policy counsel at Access Now.
The Indian government’s plans to reshape the Indian internet could have profound consequences beyond India’s borders, forcing changes at Big Tech companies and setting norms and precedents for how the internet is governed. The government’s use of emergency powers to censor the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question is a case in point.
The government’s insistence that social media companies appoint three Indian residents as full-time executives to be held accountable in the event of a dispute is being called a “hostage-taking” law. Tech companies are worried that this could be a fundamental shift in the way they operate globally and could set a precedent for other countries to follow. The Indian government argues that the new rules are necessary to combat misinformation and protect national security, but critics say that they could be used to stifle dissent and undermine free speech. The situation is still developing and it remains to be seen how it will ultimately play out.
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