Internet of regulation – India’s authorities follows Bangladesh’s in policing social media | Asia
M.USHTAQ AHMED, a Bangladeshi writer, knew the risk he was taking. Attacking his government’s handling of Covid-19, not least by comparing the health minister to a cockroach, as he did on Facebook last spring, meant challenging the digital security law. The law was passed in 2018 by the thin-skinned regime of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who is now in her fourth term as Prime Minister. It punishes vague crimes such as “creating confusion” and “tarnishing the country’s image”. Mr Ahmed was one of around 450 people arrested under the law last year. Even so, the 54-year-old probably didn’t expect to languish behind bars for nine months without trial, deny bail six times and finally die in a prison hospital, as he did on February 25.
Listen to this story
Your browser doesn’t support this
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.
On the same day, the government in neighboring India introduced new guidelines for social media, video streaming and digital publishing, with soothing chatter about pride in Indian journalism and “soft touch oversight”. In lieu of a draconian law that is broad and heavily punishable, the government gazette has only recorded the “exercise of the powers conferred by subsection (1), paragraphs (z) and (zg) of subsection (2). of Section 87 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 ”.
But India’s new rules hide sharp teeth and long reach. They make messaging services and social media companies like Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook far more responsible for the material posted by users. And they severely limit the relative freedom enjoyed by online content providers from news sites to Netflix.
In January, Twitter first followed an official request to freeze more than 1,000 accounts and then resisted, mostly from supporters of a long-running mass protest by farmers. Now all social media companies and online publishers are required to promptly remove content at the request of the government, identify the source of a post (and thereby break the encryption that many chat services rely on for user privacy to follow particularly cumbersome procedures to respond to public complaints. In line with Bangladeshi law, the government may request the removal of material that it believes violates Indian law, harms national interests, or creates internal unrest.
Although the guidelines speak of self-regulation, bureaucrats must approve membership in an industry association formed for this purpose. Any decisions that such an outfit makes can be overridden by a government body that also decides whether a media company has responded appropriately to public complaints. Given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist supporters frequently trolling his critics, companies fear they will be inundated with false complaints and then punished for not responding to all of them politely and in a timely manner. A government initiative to recruit volunteers to help police monitor the Internet could lead to even more burdensome complaints.
Many argue that the rules violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and privacy. They are also alarmingly broad and vague: it is unclear whether print publications that also publish their editions online are subject to the guidelines and whether and how oversight will be extended to foreign companies. Legal challenges are inevitable.
Social media companies fear that privacy erosion could lead to customer exodus. When WhatsApp announced to its 530 million Indian users in January that it might leak some of its information to parent company Facebook, so many retired that the change was hastily canceled. Digital news outlets, which include some of Mr. Modi’s fiercest critics, fear an impossible regulatory burden will be placed on them by a government that has already tamed most of the media.
The government replied that the Internet requires the kind of self-regulatory industry groups, codes of conduct and government oversight that television, print media and film industries are already subject to varying degrees. Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist, doubts he will resign unless blocked by the courts, even if the new rules drive out large foreign companies. When the government banned dozens of Chinese apps last year, Indian entrepreneurs eagerly stepped into the breach. During the dispute with Twitter, many of Mr. Modi’s followers specifically gave up service for a little-known Indian rival.
Even if the government has to pull out, online critics will not relax. In February, police raided the home of Prabir Purkayastha, the owner and editor of NewsClick, a website that frequently berates Mr. Modi. They held him under house arrest for four and a half days when they searched his property. On March 3, the tax authorities raided properties of several Bollywood personalities who had criticized Mr. Modi, unusual for an industry that normally attacks the powerful. One was Taapsee Pannu, an actress whose sin may have been a social media post: “If a tweet shakes your unity, a joke shakes your faith, or a show shakes your religious belief, then you need to work to build your worth System.” ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the heading “Web of Regulation”.