The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in a battle with U.S. tech firms over a new set of online speech rules that it has enacted for the nation of nearly 1.4 billion.
The rules require companies to restrict a range of topics on their services, comply with government takedown orders and identify the original source of information shared. If the companies fail to comply, tech firm employees can be held criminally liable.
The escalation of tensions between Modi’s government and tech firms, activists say, could result in the curtailment of Indians’ online speech.
“Absent a change in direction, the future of free speech in the world’s largest democracy is increasingly imperiled,” said Samir Jain, director of policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a digital rights advocacy group.
“Users will have less freedom of expression and less access to news and entertainment that is unapproved by the government. The rules will thereby undermine Indian democracy,” Jain told VOA.
At the center of the battle is Twitter, which asked for a three-month extension to comply with the new IT rules that went into effect May 25.
On May 24, New Delhi police attempted to deliver a notice to Twitter’s office, which was closed at the time, and then released a video of officers entering the building and searching the offices on local TV channels.
In a tweet days later, Twitter said it was “concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve.”
“We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global terms of service, as well as with core elements of the new IT rules,” the company said.
Earlier this month, the government sent a letter to Twitter saying it was giving the company “one final notice” adding that if Twitter fails to comply, there will be “unintended consequences,” according to NPR, which obtained the letter.
“It is beyond belief that Twitter Inc. has doggedly refused to create mechanisms that will enable the people of India to resolve their issues on the platform in a timely and transparent manner and through fair processes by India based clearly identified resources,” the letter said.
The Indian government is pushing back on criticism that its new rules restrict online speech.
“Protecting free speech in India is not the prerogative of only a private, for-profit, foreign entity like Twitter, but it is the commitment of the world’s largest democracy and its robust institutions,” India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) said in a statement.
Some who are critical of the government’s new IT rules are also skeptical of the tech industry’s response.
It is “not an existential crisis as everyone will have us believe,” said Mishi Choudhary, a technology lawyer and founder of India’s Software Freedom Law Center. Choudhary said users will be forced to stay on the sidelines, rather than taking an active role in discussions about their basic rights.
“Some of the companies are still playing the game of ‘we are a sales office’ or ‘our servers are in California,’ frustrating anyone who comes to their legitimate defense as well,” Choudhary said.
India has a long tradition of free speech, and its tech savvy market is attractive for U.S. tech firms looking to expand. Although the Indian constitution protects certain rights to freedom of speech, it has restrictions. Expressions are banned that threaten “the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
Even before the recent tensions between tech firms and the government, India was among the top nations in the world seeking to restrict online speech. From Jan. 1, 2020, to June 1, 2020, India was one of the top five countries asking Twitter to remove content.
For example, after violent protests on Jan. 26th involving farmers unhappy with new agricultural laws, the Modi government demanded Twitter block 500 accounts, including those of journalists, activists and opposition leaders. Twitter did so, and then eventually reversed course only to receive a noncompliance notice, according to a company statement.
Several Indian journalists faced charges of sedition over their reporting and online posts following the protest by farmers. Among them is the executive editor of the Caravan magazine, Vinod K. Jose and although his Twitter handle is currently active, it was withheld in India this year.
The government is also particularly sensitive about criticism of its handling of the coronavirus, asking that social media firms remove mention of the B.1617 variant as the “Indian variant.” In May, the government ordered social media firms to remove any mention of the Indian variant. The variant first reported in India is now called Delta, according to the World Health Organization.
Earlier this month, Twitter complied with a request from the government to block the Twitter account of Punjabi-born Jaswinder Singh Bains, alias JazzyB, a rapper. While Twitter informed him that he had been blocked for reportedly violating India’s Information Technology Act, he said he believes he was blocked for supporting the farmers in their protests, according to media reports.
Jason Pielemeier, director of policy and strategy at the Global Network Initiative, an alliance of tech companies supporting freedom of expression online, wrote to the MeitY, calling attention to many issues with the new rules.
“Each of these concerns on its own can negatively impact freedom of expression and privacy in India,” he wrote. “Together, they create significant risk of undermining digital rights and trust in India’s regulatory approach to the digital ecosystem.”
Twitter isn’t the only tech firm affected by new laws. WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging app owned by Facebook, filed a lawsuit in May against the Indian government arguing that the new rules allow for “mass surveillance.” According to the lawsuit, the new rules are illegal and “severely undermine” the right to privacy of its users.
At issue for WhatsApp is that under the new rules, encryption would have to be removed, and according to The Guardian, messages would have to be in a “traceable” database.