‘Wolf in watchdog’s clothes’: India’s new digital media legal guidelines spark fears for freedoms | India
Shortly before he was elected Prime Minister of India in 2014, Narendra Modi spoke of his dreams of a “digital India” in which “access to information knows no barriers”.
But this week unprecedented barriers came into effect for every form of digital content, from online news to social media and movies to television on streaming platforms, making India’s digital empire one of the most regulated of all major democracies.
The major new IT set of rules brings almost everything that happens online under a mechanism of state regulation, including the government’s power to remove “offensive” online content and people’s right to privacy on social media and encrypted messaging apps how to delete whatsapp.
The move has sparked a huge backlash in the tech and media worlds, and several online publishers filed legal complaints against the rules in the Delhi Supreme Court this week.
“The new rules are taking democracy and free speech in a very alarming direction under the guise of promoting online safety and making India safer,” said Riana Pfefferkorn, a researcher at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.
Now that tech companies have been instructed by the government to proactively monitor what people are saying on their platforms – and store data about users’ identities that could then be turned over to the government upon request – Pfefferkorn said that so “What would have a chilling effect on what people are willing to say and do online when they know they are being watched. “
“The vendors are being pressured to remove content that the Indian government considers illegal or a threat to India’s security – categories that now appear to include criticism of the Modi government,” she said.
A tough crackdown on dissent
The government has insisted that the new rules create a level playing field and regulate online content in the same way as traditional newspapers, television and film. In a press release announcing the rules, they were described as “progressive” and “liberal”. “We want them to be more responsible and accountable,” said IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on digital platforms.
But even India’s mainstream media, which rarely speak out against the government, have expressed concern. An editorial in the Hindu newspaper described the new rules as “wolf in watchdog dress” and as “deeply worrying as they will end up giving the government a lot of leverage over online news publishers and intermediaries”.
The Editors Guild of India made a damned statement over the weekend saying the rules are “fundamentally changing the way news publishers work on the Internet and have the potential to seriously undermine media freedom in India.”
Many see the rules as a continuation of Modi’s authoritarian approach to dissent. Freedom of the press and expression have been severely restricted by Modi since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. The mainstream media has been largely within government reach, but it is online news platforms that have become one of the last bastions of independent journalism.
Social media such as Twitter are also used as an important organizational and information tool for anti-government measures, such as the large peasant protests that have been taking place in India since November. In return, the government has tried to control the platforms by, for example, demanding that Twitter remove thousands of accounts critical of the government and threaten its employees with arrest if the company fails to comply.
A protesting farmer checks his cell phone while resting on a blocked highway. Photo: Prakash Singh / AFP / Getty Images
Indeed, digital access control has become a regular tool used to contain the Modi government’s disagreements. This year, India topped the world’s most Internet shutdown list for the third year in a row, according to Digital Rights Group Access Now. Of the 155 internet shutdowns that occurred worldwide in 2020, 109 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 largest and most lucrative markets in the world. So far, tech companies have not spoken about whether they will comply, but internet company Mozilla said the “impact of these regulations will have a devastating impact on freedom of expression, privacy and security.”
“They call these rules self-regulation,” said Prasanth Sugathan, legal director at the Software Freedom Law Center. “But when you have a regulatory mechanism that ends up with a government agency that can remove any content it thinks is problematic – perhaps because it’s critical of the government – that self-regulation can quickly turn into state censorship.”
Indian digital news platforms The Wire.in and The News Minute are among those who petitioned the Delhi Supreme Court this week claiming that IT rules are “obviously illegal”.
Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of TheWire, described the rules as an “oppressive architecture” that gave the government the authority to delete or modify content and “gave them powers that run counter to the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press”.
“We have argued that there is a risk of adversely affecting fundamental rights,” said Dhanya Rajendran, editor of Newsminute.
The effects of these regulations are already being felt. Streaming platforms like Amazon Prime and Netflix, which were previously outside the control of the government, are now subject to the same strict regulation of their content. This week, Amazon Prime canceled two upcoming shows.
“The Indian government is trying to dictate what to say and what not to say online and is making technology providers censor their users as a cost of doing business in India,” said Pfefferkorn.