The Modi government’s threats to ban international social media apps for not complying with new local guidelines are as damaging to the country as they are for these companies.
May 26 was the last day for all social media companies to meet a local regulation in India that was introduced in February and mandates all firms with over 50 lakh users to offer traceability of information as well as appoint a grievance officer.
Failing to follow the regulation will not end in a ban like many clickbait headlines have suggested, but it will result in loss of intermediary status, which means companies like Facebook and Twitter could be criminally liable for any content deemed illegal on their platforms.
While the traceability rule is nearly impossible for some, the sheer haste with which the Narendra Modi government is acting – giving a three-month deadline – is ludicrous, experts believe. In comparison to the Modi government’s knee-jerk policing, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation gave companies two years to become compliant with their rules.
“These IT rules are not an attack on American big tech. They are an attack on the internet. They are unconstitutional,” said Nikhil Pahwa, digital rights activist and founder of news portal Medianama. “They affect every entity, whether Indian or international, and they affect every Indian user. These rules need to go. They go beyond the ambit of what the law allows and I hope the supreme court will strike down rules for what they are.”
WhatsApp, which has nearly 40 crore users in India, has sued the government, seeking to block the new IT rules, according to Reuters. The messaging giant argues the rules require services to trace every single message since there’s no telling which messages a government would want to investigate in the future. “In doing so, a government that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance,” WhatsApp wrote in a blog post.
Comparison with China
Over the year, the Modi government has been criticised several times for trying to curb internet freedom in different ways.
For instance, in 2018, the government was found looking into the feasibility of blocking WhatsApp in Kashmir, alleging terrorists were using the platform to stay in touch. In mid-2020, the government banned scores of wildly popular Chinese apps like short-form video-sharing platform TikTok and gaming app PUBG, alleging a threat to national security. And earlier this year, it urged Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to take down posts and block accounts discussing the Covid-19 crisis mismanagement in India.
The new IT rules are a “tool in the government’s pocket” it can use to threaten the platforms whenever it wants, according to Pahwa. It’s a first step towards enabling a filtering mechanism for speech on the internet just like in China.
The regulation is reminiscent of India’s neighbour’s contentious strict social media guidelines, others agree. “If these rules are not declared illegal by courts then we are moving towards a police state, which is a valid comparison with China,” said Salman Waris, managing partner at law firm TechLegis, adding that it could lead to the government “dictating everything on these platforms.”
Besides retaining vast amounts of data for handing over to the government whenever asked, the new rules will also result in platforms over-censoring content and requiring dangerous unproven AI-based content regulation tools that will compromise cybersecurity and privacy, according to digital rights non-profit Access Now.
What is most ironic is that a government that has been obsessed with improving India’s place on the Ease of Doing Business ranking is making it hard for giants like Facebook and Twitter to run their businesses. The buzz about the ban comes at a time when India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar is in the US meeting senior members of the Joe Biden administration.
Even if there are no bans, the strained relations between the tech giants and authorities have cemented the fact that India has an uncertain regulatory environment.
“In the garb of addressing misinformation and regulating technology companies, the government of India has been exceeding the powers granted through subordinate legislation and using it for political purposes,” Mishi Choudhary, a technology lawyer with a practice in New York and New Delhi, said. “Technology companies need regulation but not at the expense of user rights.”
Despite the red flags, there are some social media apps that are on board.
Last year, homegrown social media platform ShareChat gained 5.9 crore users overnight when Chinese apps were banned. Made-in-India Twitter alternative Koo has gotten ample support from the government, while Twitter itself is in a constant tussle with authorities in the country – most recently over the manipulated media tag assigned to a Congress “toolkit” shared by Bharatiya Janata Party members.
These native platforms have often alleged that foreign companies are non-compliant and called for protectionist policies. They’re trying to create a market for themselves by crippling competition from abroad. But that is dangerous for the market on the whole.
“You should curtail the power of all platforms but let them have a level playing field,” said Pahwa. “Let them compete on the basis of tech and resources, not on the basis of whether public policy is influenced to suit their business. This government-backed crony capitalism in tech is something we shouldn’t have.”
Already these rules are a threat to democracy. But even beyond the country’s borders, these moves do a massive disservice to India’s reputation. For one, who wants to do business in a country that arbitrarily changes laws with little notice and poor planning? Additionally, the government fails to see the huge ripple effects of its ask.
“One large country, by adopting and enforcing these rules, could make it so that large messaging platforms either pull out or don’t offer encrypted services all over the world,” the Center of Democracy and Technology noted.
This article first appeared on Quartz.