The Indian Government’s proposed amendment to the IT act to regulate content on social media and messaging platforms has triggered a roaring debate among tech companies to freedom-of-speech activists to political parties. Whilst the headline of this NYT piece might have gone too far in comparing it with China (several countries including those from the west have implemented rules to various degrees in this direction), it does raise questions given the timing of the law – weeks before what will undoubtedly be a crucial general election from the perspective of the country’s long term political future.
“…Under the proposed rules, Indian officials could demand that Facebook, Google, Twitter, TikTok and others remove posts or videos that they deem libelous, invasive of privacy, hateful or deceptive. Internet companies would also have to build automated screening tools to block Indians from seeing “unlawful information or content.” Another provision would weaken the privacy protections of messaging services like WhatsApp so that the authorities could trace messages back to their original senders….
… “The proposed changes have an authoritarian bent,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group, which plans to challenge the rules in court if they are enacted. “This is very similar to what China does to its citizens, where it polices their every move and tracks their every post on social media.” India’s proposals add to the growing resistance worldwide against internet behemoths like Google and Facebook, which once flourished largely unimpeded. In Europe, officials last year enacted tough new rules to protect people’s online data, forcing the companies to change some practices. China has long used a system of internet filters, known as the Great Firewall, to block content and shut out global tech companies. And in a 2017 review, The New York Times tallied more than 50 countries that had passed laws in recent years to gain greater control over how their people use the web…..
…In a filing with the ministry last week, Microsoft said that complying with India’s new standards would be “impossible from the process, legal and technology point of view.” The company — whose Hyderabad-born chief executive, Satya Nadella, is a business icon in India — said the proposal lumped together all intermediaries, as varied as social networks and Wi-Fi hot spots, even though each has a different level of control over content that flows through it. In the filing, Microsoft said it would be difficult to screen out gambling content, as the rules would require. Filtering the full range of content demanded by the government would not only violate privacy and freedom of expression, the company wrote, but would also be so challenging that “the cost of even attempting compliance will be prohibitive.”
“WhatsApp cares deeply about creating a space for private conversations online,” Carl Woog, a company spokesman, said at a news conference in New Delhi. He said the proposed rules “would require us to re-architect WhatsApp, leading to a different product, one that would not be fundamentally private.”
….Indian authorities are struggling to deal with inflammatory messages that spread on social platforms. They shut down the entire internet in 2017 in the state of Punjab just before a popular spiritual guru was convicted on rape charges. That did not stop his followers from flooding the streets, and at least 30 people died in the violence.
… One of the biggest cheerleaders for the new rules was Reliance Jio, a fast-growing mobile phone company controlled by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest industrialist. Mr. Ambani, an ally of Mr. Modi, has made no secret of his plans to turn Reliance Jio into an all-purpose information service that offers streaming video and music, messaging, money transfer, online shopping, and home broadband services.
In a filing last week, Reliance Jio said the new rules were necessary to combat “miscreants” and urged the government to ignore free-speech protests. The company also said that encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp, “although perceivably beneficial to users, are detrimental to national interest and hence should not be allowed.”
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