Unlike other countries such as Australia, the proposed regulations in India are harsher, and could be used to stifle political, religious, sexual and intellectual views.
Bala Murali Krishna
India has become the latest battleground for social media and Internet companies as the clock ticks on two regulatory measures that seek to fundamentally change the free platforms.
One issued by the information technology ministry will require Facebook and others to, among other things, proactively detect and delete within 24 hours any content impacting the “sovereignty and integrity of India” or even “decency or morality”.
It is part of a sweeping update to rules set in 2011. While its mandate is to the social media platforms, it impinges on the citizen’s right to free expression on a range of subjects, from the moral (promotion of tobacco or alcohol) to the political (criticism of the State). In its worst application, the law could conceivably be used to target a user for preferring one brand of beer over another in a Facebook post on, say, one’s experience at a newly opened bar.
The rules drafted under provisions of the IT Act of 2000 are in public comment stage until January 31, and could become law soon after, with or without changes.
The social media companies say they will push back. Lobby groups representing Facebook and other companies have sought legal counsel and are said to be drafting objections. However, recent battles elsewhere in the world suggest the Internet giants, despite their obvious heft, are no match against the State.
In Vietnam, the tech majors could not stop an Internet law that, among other things, cracks down on political dissent from becoming effective this year. Within days, a battle has loomed, as the country’s communist government issued notices to Facebook for not removing some unidentified content. Facebook has yet to comply with the order or with the law’s other provisions, such as opening an office in the country or storing the data of Vietnamese users within the country.
In Australia, the tech groups fought a much stronger battle but couldn’t stop a “deeply flawed” anti-encryption bill from being passed last month. Even the opposition Labor Party voted for the bill, withdrawing 170 amendments it initially sought.
That law still can be invoked only to fight terrorism and for law enforcement, and will additionally enjoy parliamentary oversight in its first year. In comparison, India’s proposed rules are harsher, and could be used to stifle political, religious, sexual and intellectual views.
While many Internet and rights groups in India have expressed their opposition to the proposed rules, political parties have barely protested. The lack of political opposition is troubling in a democracy, but understandable given the track record of most parties in upholding freedom of speech. Parties across the political spectrum routinely crack down on ‘dissent’ on Facebook, or shut down offline events with impunity.
Consequently, the more likely outcome of the battle is a form of conciliation, or perhaps stalemate. Facebook, Google and Twitter, for example, could justifiably claim an inability to ‘proactively’ detect and identify objectionable content.
Facebook’s losing battle against fake news is a glowing example that current machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities are ineffective in policing varied, indeterminate and highly subjective content with any accuracy. It remains to be seen how the Internet platforms respond to requests for taking down content or user accounts, or identifying real users.
In any case, any threat will likely not be immediate and the Internet giants may have judicial recourse in some instances. Also, in most of Facebook’s existence, Indian authorities have never officially sought the social network to take down any content. Obviously, that could quickly change given the new law.
The second threat to Internet freedoms might look more dire because it could threaten WhatsApp, the messaging platform Indians have taken to like duck to water. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has sought views from industry and public on whether or not the so-called Over the Top (OTT), operators should be regulated.
Published industry comments reflect a sharp divide. While telecom companies seek parity with the messaging platforms via uniform licensing terms, Internet groups and the software lobby Nasscom oppose any form of regulation because it could stifle innovation.
The TRAI is to report its findings and views to the telecom department, which will have the final say. It is conceivable that encrypted messaging platforms — WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram — could be ordered to decode messages and identify users. If that were to happen, the messaging apps have a clear choice: break end-to-end encryption that protects all the data and the users from being identified, or face a likely ban, as Russia has done with Telegram.
Would Facebook-owned WhatsApp walk away from its largest market? Or indeed Twitter or Google? More likely, all the Internet giants will hang on and heed what an Indian official reportedly told a tech executive: “It's a monster you have created, now go find a solution.”
Bala Murali Krishna works for a New York-based startup. Views are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.