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India’s social media law puts the power of big tech in the hands of the state, critics say

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In this illustration, the logos of the mobile apps Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Netflix are displayed on one screen.

Regis Duvignau | Reuters

India’s new social media rules are a sign that New Delhi is hardening its stance on big tech, experts told CNBC.

Internet giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google – collectively known as Big Tech – have won billions of users worldwide on their digital platforms. They have invested billions of dollars over the years as they see India, a country of over 600 million internet users, as a critical growth engine for the future.

“I believe the Indian government has become less accommodating over the years,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at Tufts University’s The Fletcher School.

To be clear, India is not alone.

Regulators around the world have also taken a closer look at the oversized influence of the tech titans of Silicon Valley. From the United States to Europe and Australia, regulators are tightening the rules to keep big tech in check.

Keeping big tech in check

From fighting fake news to preventing monopoly practices, the Indian government has cracked down on big tech for the past few months.

In February, New Delhi announced major reforms to make social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and other legal inquiries more accountable. They would have to remove content that the government deems “illegal” while messaging service providers would be required to identify the original posters of certain messages – but that could mean breaking the end-to-end encryption promised to users.

The ordinance came a few days after India reprimanded Twitter in early February for failing to promptly comply with orders to remove certain content that the government alleged was spreading misinformation about farmers protesting new agricultural reforms.

Misinformation, often quickly spreading through social platforms, is a cause for concern in India. For example, three years ago a rumor spread via WhatsApp allegedly resulted in several people being killed in India.

Read more about Big Tech’s Influence in India

Anti-competitive practices by the big technology companies have also been subject to regulatory scrutiny – particularly measures that are seen as disadvantaging Indian companies, according to Trisha Ray, associate fellow of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) technology and media initiative.

“The moderation of content was also another point of contention,” Ray said, adding that social media companies have come under fire for failing to remove certain types of content that the Indian government believes is public Threaten security.

Why now?

Chakravorti outlined several reasons India is becoming less responsive to big tech.

A big driver is the rise of India’s native platforms like Reliance Jio, which “is benefiting from the government’s more aggressive stance on US tech companies as it (Jio) seeks to develop its own apps and services,” he told CNBC in a E-mail.

Other reasons are the government’s political ambitions, such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s striving for independence and appeasing the “religious rights of Hindus,” he said. The groundbreaking “Make In India” policy – which aims to revitalize India’s manufacturing sector through increased domestic and foreign participation – is another factor, he said.

“The government finally wants to control media narratives across the country,” said Chakravorti.

“While traditional media is easier to control, it is more difficult to generate and reinforce social media from users.

(The new social media rules) aims at some power that the state can wield over social media companies, which essentially makes social media companies a media platform for the state …

Apar Gupta

Executive Director, Internet Freedom Foundation

Data protection, privacy, voting interference and disinformation have all increased in recent years, Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital freedom organization in India, told CNBC.

Some of the newer rules have been criticized by digital rights activists and technologists for focusing too much on “government policy goals for greater power over social media companies,” he said. Instead, they should “serve the interests of users in terms of privacy, freedom of expression and a safe online environment,” added Gupta.

Criticism of the law

Social networks shape India’s civil space, but there are no mechanisms in place to hold them accountable for the content on their platforms that is not restricted by jurisdiction issues, according to Urvashi Aneja, associate fellow at Chatham House and founding director at Tandem Research.

“As a result, you may be seeing some of this current flexibilization that is certainly exaggerated and likely to affect civil liberties in the long term,” Aneja told CNBC.

Experts have raised concerns about India’s new social media law, which has been introduced and implemented without public consultation.

Some say the rules could potentially undermine some user rights that technology companies offer, such as end-to-end encryption.

The rules lack “clarity about the exact parameters for arrangements for removing content, and provisions can be interpreted widely and differently, which often makes them a hammer in the search for a nail,” said ORF’s Ray.

(Big Tech) won’t have the leverage and will of management to fight battles on so many fronts. In the short term, I think the Indian government will win.

Bhaskar Chakravorti

Tufts University

Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation stated that the conditions set out in the new IT rules go beyond “normal shutdowns after notification and a normal level of due diligence”.

He agreed that changes are needed for social media companies in India to be more transparent and accountable in areas such as platform voting disinformation and data breaches – something his organization advocates. But the new rules don’t take these results into account, he said.

“It aims at a power that the state can wield over social media companies, which essentially makes social media companies a media platform for the state rather than a democratic debate room for individual citizens,” added Gupta.

Will companies stick to it?

Analysts don’t expect Big Tech to act aggressively against Indian law – the way Google and Facebook reacted to Australia’s new media law. So far, none of the companies has threatened to withdraw their products and services from the market.

Aneja of Tandem Research stated that India promises a lucrative market for the internet giants and that her main focus will likely be on maintaining access and presence.

“I think the bigger problem will be getting the smaller companies to comply,” she said.

Vehicles drive past an information technology park in the Electronic City area of ​​Bengaluru, India on Friday, March 5, 2021.

Dhiraj Singh | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Aneja said India’s institutional and regulatory capacity to implement reforms is still relatively weak. “Too often the blame is placed on tech companies,” she said, adding that India needs to do more to enforce its rules before significant changes take place.

There is no data protection law in India either, although a draft law is currently still in parliament.

Chakravorti of Tufts University said it was unlikely that there would be a head-on confrontation between big tech and the Indian government as they would come under pressure in the US in the coming years.

These companies “will not have the leverage and will of management to wage battles on so many fronts. I think the Indian government will win in the near future,” he said.

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