Shortly before being elected Indian Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi spoke of his dreams of a “digital India”, where “access to information knows no barriers”.
But this week, unprecedented barriers on all forms of digital content, from online news and social media, to movies and TV on streaming platforms, came into effect, making India’s digital domain the one of the most heavily regulated of all major democracies.
Series of sweeping new IT rules subjects almost everything that happens online to government regulatory mechanism, including giving the government the power to remove ‘objectionable’ online content and erasing people’s right to privacy on social networks and encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp.
The move sparked a huge backlash in the tech and media world, and a legal challenge against the rules was raised this week in Delhi’s high court by several online publishers.
“The new rules take democracy and free speech in a very alarming direction, all under the pretext of promoting online safety and making India safer,” said Riana Pfefferkorn, researcher at the Center for Internet and Society of Stanford Law School.
With the government now ordering tech companies to proactively monitor what people say on their platforms – and keep data about the identities of those users which could then be turned over to the government on demand – Pfefferkorn said it “Would act as a deterrent to what people are willing to say and do online if they know they are being watched.”
“Providers are under pressure to remove content that the Indian government deems illegal or a threat to India’s security – categories that now appear to include criticism of the Modi government,” she said.
A crackdown on dissent
The government insisted that the new rules level the playing field and regulate online content in the same way as traditional newspapers, television and film. A press note accompanying the announcement of the rules called them “progressive” and “liberal”. “We want them to be more responsible, more accountable,” said IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad of digital platforms.
Yet even India’s mainstream media, which rarely speak out against the government, have expressed concern, an editorial in The Hindu newspaper called the new rules a “wolf in watchdog disguise” and described them as “deeply disturbing. because they will end up with a lot of leverage on publishers and online news intermediaries ”.
The Editors Guild of India over the weekend issued a damning statement that the rules “fundamentally change the way news publishers operate on the internet and have the potential to seriously undermine media freedom in India.”
Many see the rules as a continuation of Modi’s government’s authoritarian crackdown on dissent. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression have been severely restricted since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party (BJP) came to power, with mainstream media widely within the reach of the government, but these are the platforms for online information that has become one of the last strongholds of independent journalism. .
Social media, such as Twitter, are also being used as a vital organizing and information tool for anti-government actions, such as the huge farmer protests that have been taking place in India since November. In turn, the government has attempted to control the platforms, for example by demanding that Twitter delete thousands of government-critical accounts and threatening their staff with arrest if the company does not comply.
Indeed, controlling access to the digital domain has become a regular tool to curb the dissent of the Modi government. This year, for the third year in a row, India tops the global list for most internet shutdowns, according to digital rights group Access Now. Of the 155 internet shutdowns that occurred worldwide in 2020, 109 of them were in India.
The rules will fundamentally change the way big tech companies like Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, and Twitter, operate in India, one of the world’s largest and most lucrative markets. Tech companies have so far been silent on their compliance, but internet company Mozilla has said that “the ripple effects of these provisions will have a devastating impact on free speech, privacy and security.” .
“They call these rules self-regulation,” said Prasanth Sugathan, legal director of the Software Freedom Law Center. “But when you have a regulatory mechanism that ultimately ends with a government body that can remove whatever content it deems problematic – maybe because it’s criticizing the government – then that self-regulation can quickly turn into censorship.” of State “,
Indian digital news platforms The Wire.in and The News Minute are among those who challenged IT rules in court this week, in a petition presented to the Delhi High Court, arguing they are “patently illegal “.
Siddharth Varadarajan, editor-in-chief of TheWire, described the rules as an “oppressive architecture”, which, by giving the government the power to remove or modify content, granted them “powers that go against the law. constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press ”.
“We argued that this could violate fundamental rights,” said Dhanya Rajendran, editor of the News Minute.
The impact of these regulations is already being felt. Streaming platforms like Amazon Prime and Netflix, which were previously out of government control, will now be subject to the same strict regulation of their content and this week Amazon Prime canceled two upcoming shows.
“The Indian government is trying to dictate what is and is not acceptable to say online, and is pushing technology providers to censor their users as the cost of continuing to do business in India,” Pfefferkorn said.