The world’s big tech companies brace for massive fight with India from Modi, Telecom News, ET Telecom


Saritha Rai and Vlad Savov

India is increasingly asserting itself in its efforts to control online communications, challenging the practices of Twitter and Facebook and threatening to set a precedent that could extend far beyond its borders.

America’s biggest internet companies are fighting new middleman rules released by Narendra Modi’s government in February that they say restrict privacy and freedom of speech. Officials have demanded that Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. delete hundreds of posts this year, disclose sensitive user information, and submit to a regulatory regime that includes potential jail sentences for executives if companies fail to comply. not.

As pressure from the administration to exert more control over user data and online discourse reflects global efforts to tackle tech giants and their enormous influence, the stakes in India are particularly high for Internet businesses because only a billion people market to gain. Unlike authoritarian regimes such as Beijing, critics fear that the measures taken by the world’s largest democracy may offer a model for other governments to invade privacy in the name of homeland security.

“India has introduced drastic changes to its rules,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in April. They “create new opportunities for government oversight of citizens. These rules threaten the idea of ​​a free and open Internet built on the foundation of international human rights standards.

Holding internet companies accountable for published content – and in some cases executives personally responsible – goes beyond what many countries demand and is a key point of contention. Hundreds of millions of people in India are caught up in the standoff over how how to engage with the internet is now at stake. Facebook’s WhatsApp is in court, arguing that the new rules would bypass its encryption, a key feature it the company has touted itself in global marketing.

Modi’s administration has taken to Twitter in recent months, given its role as the social platform of choice for politicians and celebrities. Cabinet ministers accused the U.S. company of defying orders and suggested it should be stripped of its middleman status, making it directly responsible for content posted by its users. In May, Twitter put a “manipulated media” label on tweets from several accounts linked to Modi’s party. Police investigators have since tapped senior executives and their offices, putting businesses in the world’s second most populous country at risk.

“Twitter is in a dead end here,” said Mike Masnick, founder of tech policy blog Techdirt. “Giving in to the government’s excessive demands not only suppresses important rhetoric, but opens the company to even more pressure to silence critics of the government in India and elsewhere. “

Representatives from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) which oversees the regulations did not respond to several calls and emails seeking comment. Representatives for WhatsApp and Twitter declined to comment beyond past statements that they will aim to comply with government regulations.

India has said it welcomes criticism and dissent and that its new rules aim to protect public order and prevent harmful content such as child pornography and abuse videos. In recent years, the country has been grappling with an explosion of fake news on social media, much of it targeting a largely novice internet audience unaccustomed to sifting through lies online. It came into conflict with Facebook in 2018 when the government asked WhatsApp to curb the dissemination of messages related to some 20 lynchings. Facebook’s response then was to restrict the forwarding of messages and label them as “forwarded”.

WhatsApp has over 530 million users in India, Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube has around 450 million, and Facebook has over 410 million users, making it the largest market for the three. Twitter, a comparative minnow with 17.5 million users, counts India among its fastest growing territories. But that limited reach makes it vulnerable in a country that showed itself ready to ban popular foreign services a year ago when it banned TikTok – which had registered 200 million users in the country – WeChat and hundreds. other applications made in China after a violent clash at the disputed border between the two countries.

As in the United States, however, Twitter wields an influence disproportionate to its size. It is vital to the political debate in India and Modi himself is an avid user and has over 69 million subscribers which shows his international reach. While ministers have tweeted belligerently about Twitter, none have yet openly expressed the threat of banning it.

Even when clashing with China, India can still learn from the experience of its neighbor, where the void left by stranded foreign social platforms to oppose strict censorship has created room for development. local alternatives. In fact, Modi’s colleagues have actively touted Koo, a local microblogging rival.

“I have to imagine that Modi is looking at China and thinks that it can have economic prosperity while exercising authoritarian control over speech and communications,” said Katie Harbath, former director of public policy at Facebook who has worked with them. The country’s officials between the fall of 2013, before Modi’s first election as prime minister, until early this year. “So the big question is, in which direction will India go? “

Much of the current resentment stems from government pressure to control the conversation around farmer protests that have been unfolding since November, centered on proposals to tax farm inputs and remove minimum price support. The administration forced Twitter to block some popular figures expressing support for the protesters – such as Punjabi singer JazzyB, whose account has 1.2 million followers but is not accessible in India – although the company has no responded to all his requests.

American and European lawmakers should pay more attention to this South Asian country, Harbath said. Like Masnick, she sees few good options for private companies to oppose laws from above, and it would be up to the international community to bring India back on a more liberal path.

The United States has adopted India in recent years as a counterweight to China, stepping up defense cooperation as part of the Quad Group of four countries which also includes other democracies, Japan and Australia. For its part, the Modi administration has sought to attract companies seeking to diversify their supply chains away from China, which has prompted it to maintain good relations with the Biden administration and the American business community in his outfit.

Relations with American social platforms were much warmer and more collaborative in the early years of the Modi government. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg hosted Modi for a municipal event at the company’s headquarters in 2015. The two hugged each other and smiled for the cameras. But, Harbath said, whenever the administration’s popularity has declined since then – after moves such as the sudden demonetization of currency in 2016 – it has become more aggressive in trying to steer public discourse.

More recently, Modi’s government has come under fire on Twitter by critics who say it has frustrated efforts to tackle Covid-19. In response, he has sought to block recent criticism on Twitter, where the Indian leader’s anger and disappointment is evident.

“Silicon Valley’s social media platforms have a huge base in India and the confrontation is who controls these users,” said Tarun Pathak, Delhi-based research director at Counterpoint. “Over the next three to five years, some 300 million new users equivalent to the population of the United States will log on in India, shifting the balance of power eastward for these companies.”

Twitter appointed an interim compliance officer two weeks ago, long after his peers appointed permanent representatives, and that person has reportedly left the post. A company spokesperson declined to confirm or comment on the reasons.

MEITY chief Ravi Shankar Prasad on Friday saw his Twitter account briefly locked down due to a complaint of alleged copyright infringement, according to the company. After regaining access, the frequent Twitter antagonist wrote that his “actions indicate that they are not the harbinger of the free speech they claim to be, but that they are interested. than by managing their own program “. Twitter declined to comment further, but pointed to its initial statement that Prasad’s account was briefly locked out for copyright infringement.

Twitter was recently cited alongside journalists and opposition party leaders by Uttar Pradesh police for hosting a video that sparked community discord, local reports said. Delhi Police also said they were investigating another complaint against India’s Twitter chief Manish Maheshwari, linked to the video, which purported to show majority Hindus assaulting a minority Muslim man. The company has since deleted the offending clip, offering no comment beyond its statement of compliance with local laws. The government of Uttar Pradesh has asked the Indian Supreme Court to revoke the protection of a lower Maheshwari court from arrest.

Without pressure on India to reconsider its online powers – something the Washington Post editorial board called for this month – companies like Twitter will need to carefully weigh their decisions so as not to be squeezed out of action. a large market while respecting the principles they espouse, Harbath said.

It is a delicate dance that is becoming more and more common in the world. Countries as far away as Australia, Poland and Nigeria are cracking down on social platforms, alleging they have excessive power in determining what is acceptable speech and meddling in internal affairs. Nigeria banned Twitter this month and Germany’s hate speech rules will force platforms to remove illegal content quickly or face penalties.

“It’s complicated. A decision made by these companies in India won’t be for India alone,” said Bangalore-based Prateek Waghre, a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution that studies the governance of digital platforms. what they do here will serve as a model for the rest of the world. “

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