India’s latest tech, social media bill would test Big Tech’s commitment to free speech, privacy

Many big American tech companies have long viewed India as their next Eldorado, enchanted by the country’s massive population and steady modernization.

Amazon is investing billions of dollars there, challenging domestic e-commerce giants. Apple is slowly but surely gaining a foothold in the Indian smartphone market while aiming to expand production within its borders. Hundreds of millions of Indians are already using Alphabet-owned YouTube and Meta-owned Facebook and WhatsApp, with each platform still having room to grow.

But just as they have been doing in autocratic China for decades, the giants of Silicon Valley could soon face some sticky ethical gates when it comes to operating in India.

A new proposal unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government on Wednesday would give the Indian government sweeping powers to regulate digital communications services and access vast amounts of user data.

Most worryingly, the proposed legislation would give Indian authorities the ability to seize control of communications services and intercept user messages “in the event of a public emergency or in the interest of public safety,” a nebulous provision ripe for abuse. The bill will also force licensed digital communications platforms to “uniquely identify the individual for whom they provide services,” making online anonymity impossible. To top it off, the Indian government essentially cannot be sued for abusing provisions of the law.

The plan builds on new rules and proposed guidelines in India on the government’s role in overseeing big tech companies. While some of the debate has revolved around defending user privacy, protecting native tech companies, and updating colonial-era laws, the practical implications of the regulations usually involve government officials expanding their surveillance powers.

The latest proposal fits this trend perfectly. Indian officials said the legislation, known as the Indian Telecommunications Bill of 2022, is a much-needed overhaul of laws that in some cases date back nearly 140 years. They also argued that the reforms address the “importance of cybersecurity, national security and public safety while ensuring constitutional and procedural guarantees.”

At the same time, the draft law serves as a Trojan horse for the development of India’s growing surveillance state. The Internet Freedom Foundation, a leading voice in India for democratic digital rights, tweeted on Wednesday that the proposal “extends government powers for vague reasons” and contains no “meaningful reform”.

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India’s Telecoms Act 2022 is still in its infancy, with amendments or complete scrapping still possible. But its mere introduction provides another example of the Indian government showing illiberal tendencies that go against the stated principles of Western tech companies.

In 2019, Indian officials introduced a bill that would give the government “broad powers to store, use and control the large amounts of data it has collected on its citizens, including fingerprints and iris scans.” New York Times reported. Indian lawmakers tabled the bill in August amid backlash from privacy advocates and tech giants, although government leaders said a new proposal is imminent.

Last year, the Indian government ordered Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to censor about 100 posts, including some by high-profile Indian figures who merely criticized Modi’s government and political party. The three platforms met the demand, although some of the posts outside of India remained.

And on Sunday, a new regulation comes into effect that requires operators of virtual private networks, or VPNs, to collect personal information about users and make it available to the government upon request. In response, several companies offering VPN services have ceased operations in India, and Swiss company Proton announced on Thursday that it will be joining the list.

“It will have a deterrent effect. It’s really sad that the world’s largest democracy is going this route,” said Proton CEO Andy Yen Wall Street Journal.

If Modi’s government continues down this path, more tech companies will have to decide whether a moral tradeoff is worth entering India’s path to wealth.

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Jacob Zimmerman


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