WWITH HIS 68.7 million Twitter followers Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, nestles comfortably between American celebrities Selena Gomez and Kim Kardashian in the popularity rankings on the service. It is not by chance. Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) were early and avid exploiters of social media. Whether it is to attract new members to join the 180 million that already make it the largest political party in the world, to push donations or amplify attacks against its detractors, the BJP relied on internet platforms to reshape Indian politics.
But with Mr. Modi’s decline in popularity in recent months, his government is turning against these helpful messengers. At the end of May, it began to enforce new rules that, among other things, make internet-based news channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, legally responsible for any content they broadcast, requiring them to respond promptly to official requests. blocking sites. the government deems it bad and will force messaging services, such as WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram, to break the encryption that ensures their users’ privacy. The rules also extend government oversight of digital news platforms and streaming services, such as Netflix.
A first shot through the arches took place on May 24, when police stormed into Twitter’s offices in Delhi and satellite city Gurgaon to serve legal advice regarding the company’s decision. to mark certain posts as “manipulated media” – part of global efforts to identify blatant disinformation. The labels were added in response to surveys that have shown BJP officials for being the source of tweets on a so-called media “toolbox” explaining how to attack the government’s handling of the pandemic. The offending tweets alleged that the “toolbox” (which was later revealed to be bogus) was created by the rival Congress party. But rather than investigate the political smear campaign, the government demanded that Twitter remove its tags.
Twitter’s response, proclaiming its commitment to free speech within ethical limits and expressing concern for the safety of its employees, appears to have enraged the government even more. The IT ministry accused the American firm of trying to “dictate its terms to the world’s largest democracy.” He said Twitter regularly turned a blind eye to content hostile to India, such as the use of the term ‘Indian variant’ to describe a nasty mutation of the coronavirus. The responsibility to protect the freedoms of Indians rests with their elected government, not with foreign tech companies, thundered Bhupender Yadav, a senior BJP official, in a forum.
Mr. Yadav is right. No country has yet answered satisfactorily the question of how to regulate online content. It makes sense, at a minimum, that large multinationals face some degree of local control and accountability. Yet the tangle of Indian laws and slow, capricious courts make the task of moderation infinitely complicated. In the absence of universal rules and norms, or of entrusting Chinese-style censorship powers to a single agency, it must rely heavily on trust.
The problem is, while India’s new rules make it clear that the government no longer trusts internet companies to control itself, its own behavior calls into question whether ordinary Indian citizens can trust their government to control themselves. protect their freedoms. With appalling frequency, Mr. Modi’s men have used the institutions they control to target and punish not those who pose a clear threat to India, but rather those who pose a clear threat to India. BJPits own critics and opponents.
Companies affected by the new rules are trying a variety of tactics. Google is asking for an exemption on the grounds that it acts more like a utility than a content manager. Twitter partially complied, appointing an interim “grievance officer” to handle complaints. Other firms, including WhatsApp, have sent the lawyers: at least seven lawsuits are currently pending in Indian courts. But don’t hold your breath. Judges know that those who pass rulings in favor of Mr. Modi mysteriously seem to be rewarded with fat post-retirement fatalities. The internet is a wonder, but the old ways of communicating still work.■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Shooting the messenger”