2021-04-13 10:25:41 I Thought My Job Was To Report On Tech In India. Instead, I’ve Watched Democracy Decline.

I Thought My Job Was To Report On Tech In India. Instead, I’ve Watched Democracy Decline.

Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, was selling the promise of India, his home country and the company’s largest market, to 2,000 high school and college students in a cavernous college auditorium on a frigid winter afternoon in New Delhi in 2015.

“Part of the reason we’re all so interested in India is that it’s such a young country,” he explained. “It’s a vast country, and we believe that in many ways, the trends of the future will emerge from places like that.”

Over the next few years, American tech companies looking for growth focused on India, where hundreds of millions of people were connecting to the internet for the first time thanks to low-cost Android phones and falling data prices. Venture capital flowed through the congested streets of Bangalore. Millions of Indians were suddenly booking their first Uber rides, receiving their first Amazon packages, watching their first Netflix shows, and having their first WhatsApp chats, thanks in part to the free Wi-Fi that Google was providing at the country’s railway stations. We were in the midst of a massive churning.

When my colleague Mat Honan profiled Pichai in 2016, he described those years as a “manifestation of the hope and excitement of the next billion not only coming online, but coming into power.” “It has the feel of a nation on the rise.”

Technology both created and destroyed us. Before Facebook allowed misinformation to flourish, before Twitter allowed trolls to run rampant, and before WhatsApp had Indians lynched, tech companies unchained us and promised a billion people a seat at the same table as the rest of the world — as long as they had an inexpensive data plan.

But there was another kind of churning going on at the same time. Millions of Indians voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing politician with deep roots in the RSS, a Hindu nationalist organization from which his Bharatiya Janata Party draws its ideology, a year before Pichai flew down to India. Many people expected Modi to usher in economic prosperity, but instead, India’s democracy has crumbled. Decisions like banning most banknotes harmed India’s cash-based economy, while crimes against minorities increased. Journalists were harassed, jailed, and shot; human rights activists were imprisoned for years without trials; communal clashes erupted in the capital; millions spoke out against a contentious new citizenship law that expedites Indian citizenship for members of major South Asian religions other than Islam; and farmers have been protesting new agricultural laws for months, claiming they would harm their livelihoods.

Technology both created and destroyed us.

For years, I let these incidents play out in the back of my mind. Each week, I grimaced as I scrolled through my Twitter feed, which was full of bloodshed, violence, and anger, and drowned weekends in alcohol and video games to numb the pain. But every Monday, I immersed myself in tech news, trying to keep up with Silicon Valley, a world away from India’s dust, grime, blood, and murky politics. I sent WhatsApp messages of admiration and solidarity to friends in the country who write about crime and politics from the frontlines. But I told myself that I didn’t need to be confused. I was a tech reporter, I reasoned, and new iPhones were the biggest news in my industry every September.

My coping mechanism became separating what I cover from the horrors unfolding around me. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked in a long time. For years, I tried to keep the comforting fiction that what happened in India and what happened in the world of technology separate — but that’s no longer the case.

After unilaterally withdrawing the disputed region’s autonomy, India’s government cut off and then throttled internet access to Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir for more than a year. To protect the company’s business interests, Facebook executives allegedly shielded members of India’s ruling party from the platform’s hate speech rules. Right-wing trolls have used social media to harass women they claim have offended their religious sensibilities. Hindu nationalists have repeatedly taken issue with original shows produced by Netflix and Amazon, claiming that the platforms were offending Hindu gods and promoting “love jihad,” a conspiracy theory in which Muslim men are accused of converting Hindu women. Rioters in Delhi used Facebook Live to incite violence in 2020. Last month, India’s government threatened Twitter executives with jail time for failing to comply with an order to block hundreds of accounts, many of which were critical of the government, and Delhi police briefly imprisoned a young climate activist after charging her with sedition for editing a Google Doc.

I am fascinated by technology. However, watching it intersect with a Hindu nationalist government attempting to crush dissent, choke a free press, and destroy a nation’s secular ethos does not feel like something I paid to see. Writing about technology from India now feels like having a first-hand view of the country’s rapid descent into authoritarianism. “It’s like watching a train wreck from inside the train,” I complained to my boss in November.

Things appeared to be spiraling out of control in the physical world. Protests over the contentious new citizenship law erupted across the country at the end of 2019. In January 2020, masked goons wreaked havoc at Jawaharlal Nehru University, whose students and faculty are frequently labeled as “anti-national” by the ruling party. Soon after, communal riots erupted in New Delhi, where I live. More than 50 people were killed. Nonetheless, millions of Indians were able to freely express themselves online, at least when the government did not shut down their internet.

This February, it felt as if the walls had finally crumbled. The Indian government imposed draconian rules in the final week of that month, giving it the final say over what social media platforms will leave up, what streaming services will show, and what news websites will publish. It may also necessitate the decryption of messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Signal in order to track who texted whom.

Social media companies are now required to remove anything that the government deems problematic within three days, and anything that law enforcement finds objectionable within 36 hours. Platforms must also provide information about users to law enforcement agencies if they request it. If the platforms do not comply, their local employees may be prosecuted, and companies may lose their immunity from liability for user-generated content.

Anyone in India who is offended by a scene in any show or movie available on any streaming service can file a complaint. If a service does not respond or provide a satisfactory explanation, the person who complained can file an appeal with the federal government, which can then order the service to censor, edit, or remove the content.

A new government committee can now order online news outlets to change, delete, or apologize for stories, podcasts, videos, or social media posts — or even shut them down completely. There are no meaningful ways to respond if a platform, streaming service, or website finds a demand unreasonable or illegal.

Unless the courts intervene, our internet is now enslaved.

When the rules were announced, experts across the country reacted angrily. The Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights organization based in New Delhi, said the new rules would “fundamentally change the way the internet will be experienced in India” and were “unconstitutional.” The new rules, according to editors of digital news operations, “run us down” and are “an attempt to kill digital democracy.”

However, American technology companies have remained silent thus far.

It’s like being inside a train and witnessing a train wreck.

Netflix, Amazon, and WhatsApp all declined to comment on the new rules. Google and Facebook did not respond.

According to a Twitter spokesperson, “Twitter supports a forward-thinking regulatory approach that protects the Open Internet, drives universal access, and promotes competition and innovation.” We believe that regulation is beneficial when it protects citizens’ fundamental rights while also reinforcing online freedoms. We are reviewing the updated Intermediary Guidelines and consulting with a variety of organizations and entities that will be affected by them. We look forward to continuing our engagement with the Government of India and hope to promote a balance of transparency, freedom of expression, and privacy.”

When I speak with rank-and-file employees at these companies, they appear tense. There is a great deal of nervous laughter. Some people stammer and stumble through their sentences. “I’m not sure if I should bring it up,” someone says. Few people want to say anything, and those who do are afraid of not only losing their jobs as a result of speaking to journalists, but also of retaliation from powerful politicians. “To be honest, I haven’t been getting much sleep these days,” a Twitter employee recently admitted. Another person who works for a social media company told me that they are attempting to determine who is at risk of being arrested if the government cracks down.

US technology companies are far from being saviors. They appear to have different standards than the rest of the world. In India, far-right bigots can get away with hate speech and harassment on Twitter. WhatsApp is rife with rumors and lies. And Facebook is, well, Facebook. They’ve all let us down in a variety of ways. Still, it would be a shame if their employees in India became victims of the country’s majoritarian politics and were imprisoned.

I am aware that things have not only deteriorated in India. Over the last four years, I’ve watched the United States become engulfed in a mass delusion known as QAnon, which spread from the internet to the Capitol itself. But, unlike his Indian employees, Mark Zuckerberg is not facing incarceration. American democracy appears to have triumphed.

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I Thought My Job Was To Report On Tech In India. Instead, I’ve Watched Democracy Decline.