Big Tech Companies Hit Legal Problems In India
Big Tech Companies Hit Legal Problems In India
Manjul, who goes by his first name only, has skewered leaders from every Indian government in acerbic political cartoons that have appeared in the country’s largest news publications and, in recent years, on social media for more than 30 years. But no one had ever dared to challenge the titan of editorial cartooning until June. So he was taken aback when he received an email from Twitter’s legal department in his inbox in June.
“I thought it was a joke,” he explained. But it wasn’t the case.
According to the email, the company had received a legal order from Indian law enforcement against him, alleging that his Twitter account, which had been full of satirical cartoons featuring Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s disastrous handling of the country’s coronavirus pandemic in the spring, had violated Indian laws.
Twitter explained that it had not followed the order and advised Manjul to seek legal counsel to challenge it in court, seek assistance from civil society organizations, delete his tweets, or “find some other resolution.”
“We recognize that receiving this type of notice can be unsettling,” the company wrote.
Manjul told BuzzFeed News that the email disturbed him. “I became very upset and angry,” he admitted. “No one told me what laws I had broken. In this country, everyone has a political opinion. I’m not trying to take advantage of the government.”
When he tweeted a screenshot of the email to his more than 200,000 followers, he wrote in Hindi, “Hail the Modi government!” and the Indian internet exploded. Many saw the move to silence him as yet another step by India’s increasingly authoritarian government to crack down on dissent.
For months, the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Modi, a nationalist autocrat accused of reshaping India’s secular ethos into a Hindu state, had been hard at work trying to quell an upswell of social media criticism after a deadly second wave of the pandemic killed thousands and protests from millions of farmers against new agricultural laws rocked the nation. But it wasn’t until the last week of May that things really started to heat up.
Since May 26, India’s government has been armed with policies that allow it to crack down on virtually all major digital platforms, including social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, messaging apps such as WhatsApp, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, and news websites.
One of the new rules, first proposed in February, requires social media platforms and streaming services to hire additional staff to address “grievances” filed by Indians offended by certain content, as well as full-time officers to liaise with law enforcement agencies around the clock. Others mandated that news websites submit monthly compliance reports and agree to moderate or remove stories, podcasts, and videos flagged by a government committee. Another provision requires messaging apps like WhatsApp to allow the government to track who texted whom in certain circumstances, effectively breaking encryption.
The immediate consequences of failing to follow these rules can be severe: companies can be fined heavily, and local employees can be imprisoned. And the broader implications could be worse: losing protection from being held liable for content that people post, which could expose businesses to a variety of lawsuits.
If a streaming platform does not respond or provide a satisfactory explanation, the complainant may file an appeal with the federal government, which may ultimately compel the platform to censor, edit, or remove the content in question.
It’s a watershed moment for Silicon Valley.
“All of a sudden, they transformed a free and open internet into one of the most intrusively regulated states.”
Years ago, seeing a quick path to exponential growth in India’s millions, the US tech industry rushed in, hired thousands of people, poured billions of dollars into the country, and became inextricably linked with the story of a modern, ascendant nation. However, as muscular nationalism rushed through India’s veins, criticizing the powerful became increasingly difficult. Journalists have been jailed, activists have been imprisoned, and the internet, which is almost entirely dominated by American social media platforms and streaming companies and is one of the last remaining spaces for dissent, is now under attack.
Tech companies believed they had a billion users under their control. However, the new rules may force them to choose between standing up for democratic values and their users’ rights and continuing to operate in a market critical to growth and market dominance.
“The new rules were a shock,” Mishi Choudhary, a New York-based technology and policy lawyer, told BuzzFeed News.
“All of a sudden, they transformed a free and open internet into one of the most intrusively regulated states, taking it in an undemocratic direction.”
The Indian government has attempted to justify these new regulations by claiming that they are necessary to prevent “misuse” of social media platforms. In an interview published just days after the new rules took effect, India’s former IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad stated that the new rules were put in place so that Indian users could have a direct point of contact if they believed someone had defamed them on a platform or uploaded compromising photographs.
“The issue isn’t with the use of social media,” Prasad explained. “The issue is that it is being abused. What should a person do in such a situation?”
However, critics in the country and around the world are concerned that the rules are fatally flawed. The Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights advocacy organization based in New Delhi, called the rules “unconstitutional” and warned that they could “change the way the internet is experienced in India.” The Press Trust of India, one of the country’s largest news wire services and one of many digital news publishers challenging the rules in court, has stated that the rules will “usher in an era of surveillance and fear, resulting in self-censorship.”
The primary engines of India’s political discourse and narratives are American social media companies. Their platforms are rife with commentary and debate driven by the ruling party and its supporters, as well as thousands of dissenting voices like political cartoonist Manjul. Critics are now concerned that the new rules will give the government even more power to crush the latter.
“Regardless of what they say, the government’s intentions with these rules aren’t pure,” Manjul told BuzzFeed News. “We’ve seen how they handle criticism in the past.”
Over the last decade, large American technology companies have looked west and seen a bright spot across the Pacific — India, home to 1.4 billion people, hundreds of millions of whom have never used the internet. However, by the middle of the decade, this had begun to change as a result of a fierce telecom war that had driven data prices to rock bottom. More than 700 million Indians are expected to be online by 2021, up from fewer than 400 million just five years ago, surfing the open web unhindered by bureaucratic firewalls like its neighbor China.
“It was simply a much more appealing, much more encouraging market for them than anywhere else in the world,” Choudhary explained.
The rules include stringent compliance requirements as well as the ability for citizens to file complaints about content they dislike or find offensive.
“When it comes to tech platforms in India, the gloves are off.”
“The message India’s government is sending with these rules is that we are going to tighten the screws on all platforms and put them in a difficult position,” Ramanjit Singh Chima, policy director at digital rights advocacy group Access Now, told BuzzFeed News. “They’re putting pressure on people and signaling that the gloves are off when it comes to Indian tech platforms — feel free to take offense and file claims against them.”
India is not the only country where governments are attempting to coerce platforms to conform. Vietnam, whose ruling Communist Party has muzzled criticism by cracking down on activists, introduced a social media code of conduct in June, prohibiting posts that “affect the interests of the state.” In the same month, the Nigerian government banned Twitter indefinitely after the company deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari threatening civilian protesters, and is now working on new rules to regulate the local press and social media companies. After Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were used in anti-Kremlin protests earlier this year, Russia’s internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, issued near-weekly demands asking platforms to remove posts the government believes are illegal.
Even the United States is not shy about attempting to rein in Big Tech. Earlier this year, the US Senate introduced legislation to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which currently shields platforms from liability for what people post on them. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Ben Ray Luján introduced a new bill at the end of July that could hold platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube liable for misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
However, India’s rules have piqued the interest of people all over the world because they explicitly threaten local executives with jail time.
A group of UN special rapporteurs on the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, and privacy recently wrote an eight-page letter to the Indian government, arguing that the country’s new IT rules did not meet international law standards and violated people’s rights to privacy, freedom of opinion and expression, and peaceful assembly.
“We express grave concern that some provisions of the new rules may result in the limitation or infringement of a wide range of human rights,” the letter stated. It urged India’s government to withdraw or revise the rules in order to comply with international human rights obligations.
The UN team, among other things, slammed