The Political Fix: Does anyone trust Modi’s government to genuinely place checks on Big Tech?

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The Big Story: Alien vs Predator

The ongoing battle between Big Government and Big Tech in India calls to mind the tagline to a 15-year-old Hollywood film that pitted two insatiable creatures against one another: “Whoever wins, we lose.”

Over the last week, two of the globe’s social media behemoths – Facebook, though its subsidiary WhatsApp, and Twitter – decided to take issue with the Indian government’s efforts to exert more control over them.

The two cases are slightly different, so lets tackle each one by one:

Twitter & ‘manipulated media’

Summarising Government of India vs Twitter, at least in its most recent iteration, is fairly simple:

The Indian government threw a tantrum after Twitter labeled propaganda from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as ‘manipulated media.’ It even sent an anti-terrorism unit of the police to Twitter’s offices, and then complained about India being defamed when the social media company referred to these “intimidation tactics.”

The full story is a bit more convoluted, as I explained here.

The BJP, struggling to contain the political fallout of its Covid-19 mismanagement over the last two months, put out what it said were embarassing strategy documents of the Congress that revealed the depths the Opposition party would go to in an effort to criticise Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Fact-checkers concluded that the more controversial bits of this ‘toolkit’ were apparently forged, featured instructions with a date well after they would have been useful without actually having been used by Congress handles, and bore a striking resemblance to right-wing talking points on a Twitter thread.

Twitter promptly declared the material “manipulated media,” without offering any further explanation.

The BJP, however, could not stand to see its propaganda given this critical label. The government complained to Twitter, asking it to remove the tag – though it has no powers to do so.

It made the deeply questionable argument that Twitter could not arrive at a conclusion on the content while it was still under investigation. For perspective, imagine if social media networks had to wait for an executive or judicial order before taking down suspected fake news messages or videos.

And it assigned the forgery case, filed by Congress leaders, to the Delhi Police Special Cell – which usually investigates terrorism and has a chequered, political past. Instead of looking into the forgery, the police seemed more interested in going after Twitter, which may be why the Congress leaders now want the case to be investigated by Chhattisgarh Police. The important context here is that Twitter caved into demands to censor social media handles earlier this year during the farmer protests when the Indian government threatened its local staff with jail time.

This forgery case has now led the government of India to declare that Twitter is attempting “to declare terms to the world’s largest democracy”.

WhatsApp & encryption

WhatsApp’s lawsuit against the government is a somewhat larger version of the same battle – the BJP-run government’s attempt to exert control on Bigh Tech – though with more systemic implications.

In short: Controversial new executive rules from the Indian government require apps like WhatsApp to break privacy rules, and allow authorities to identify ‘originators’ of messages whenever they want. WhatsApp has now filed a lawsuit in the Delhi High Court arguing that this is a violation of the fundamental right to privacy and the fundamental right to speech.

Like Twitter, this isn’t the first run-in between WhatsApp and Modi’s government. Just last week, the government threatened to take legal action against the Facebook-owned messaging service if it did not roll back its controversial new privacy policy.

On that issue, the Indian state is portraying itself as the entity defending the privacy of Indian citizens. On end-to-end encryption, however, WhatsApp is the one citing privacy – and the state is claiming that its demands are reasonable.

WhatsApp’s lawsuit has global implications.

If the service is forced to break end-to-end encryption in India, it might face similar pressure from governments elsewhere, starting in Brazil where authorities have been pushing for a very similar outcome. The result also will not be limited to WhatsApp, since the rules apply to all messaging services, including others like Signal and Telegram, believed by some to be safer from surveillance.

Big Tech vs Big Government

Modi’s government has over the last few years sought to weaponise the conversation around the potentially pernicious influence of Big Tech on democratic societies all over the world.

Civil society all over the world, including many in India, have pointed out the dangers of letting these companies amass unchecked power over our communication and commerce, with little regard for privacy or individual rights. This is, after all, the country that saw a large-scale mobilisation against Facebook’s attempt to break net neutrality. Those criticisms are exactly why Facebook set up an Oversight Board, to help govern its platform.

Piggybacking on the civil society criticism of Big Tech, the BJP has added the language of nationalism to these debates, referring to the social networks as ‘digital colonisers’ and contemporary versions of the ‘East India Company’. In this worldview, any pushback from Facebook or Twitter amounts to challenging Indian sovereignty, proof of how little the companies care about Indian citizens.

But instead of putting the Indian citizen at the centre of its approach towards tech regulation, the BJP wants to hand more power to the authorities, with little in the way of checks and balances. Its aim is to take power away from big tech and hand it to the government, not the citizen.

Some have argued that this will still be useful, since the government may be more answerable to its people. But, does anyone trust this government – infamous for its treatment of criticism as sedition, its willingness to censor inconvenient information, its readiness to switch off the internet at the drop of a hat – to judiciously build a regulatory framework for technology that will benefit Indians?

Consider:

  • This is the government that has yet to pass a personal data privacy law, despite telling the Supreme Court it would do so years ago. The draft of that law which it circulated has been called “dangerous” and “Orwellian”, not by civil society members or the Opposition, but by the retired Supreme Court judge whom the government tasked with putting together a bill in the first place.

  • This is the government that argued in the Supreme Court that there is no fundamental right to privacy. This is the government that has enabled widespread use of internet shutdowns across the country, far ahead of any other nation with 70% of shutdowns globally.

  • This is the government that continues to build tech products, through projects like Aadhaar, Arogya Setu, National Health ID, and so on, with little legislative backing or judicial oversight, no transparency and no regard for equity or its impact on the people, as the Internet Freedom Foundation has assiduously documented.

What happens if it is allowed to exercise more power over social media?

We already have a sense, thanks to Facebook. As the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian have reported, Facebook overruled its own guidelines on hate speech and fame accounts – including not taking down content calling for Muslims to be shot – simply because that material was uploaded by the BJP. Remember, Home Minister Amit Shah once argued that his party was capable of delivering any message, “real or fake”, to the public by making it go viral.

Meanwhile, social media networks routinely silence accounts critical of the BJP on the government’s instructions, with little transparency or opportunities to challenge these actions.

It is clear that the power held by Big Tech at the moment is tremendous and the frameworks to hold them accountable cannot come from Western societies and contexts alone. Some of India’s new rules do take some steps forward on this front, as Apar Gupta writes. But the vast majority of the moves from the BJP-run government seem like a naked power grab, in the hopes of “neutralising dissent” and exercising even more control over the populace.

If the government gets its way then, we could have the worst possible outcome: No real checks on the data-hungry ways of Big Tech, even as Big Government gets to do as it wishes. Whoever wins...

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