India's new Internet rules are a move toward 'Digital Authoritarianism,' according to a new study
The new laws, which were enacted by executive order in late February, grant the Indian government a slew of new powers that will require tech firms and news organizations to comply with government surveillance and censorship demands.
The rules put more pressure on U.S. tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp to comply with an increasingly authoritarian Indian government, according to the letter's authors, or risk losing access to India, their largest market in the world, which many see as critical to future development.
The new rules had been in the works for years, but they were only published in the midst of an escalating Indian farmer protest movement that drew national and international attention. The Indian government clashed with Twitter in February over the company's refusal to delete hundreds of posts by activists and politicians about the demonstrations, which the company said were covered by the First Amendment. After the Indian government threatened Twitter workers with jail time, the majority of the tweets were re-blocked.
India's new rules come at a time when Western governments are threatening to censor tech platforms over content such as hate speech, disinformation, and incitement to violence. The Indian laws, however, are more troubling, according to the open letter, since they are part of a broader movement toward "digital authoritarianism," which involves Internet shutdowns and journalist arrests. While the Indian rules have valuable provisions, such as requiring accountability when user content is deleted, they lack specific mechanisms for tech firms to oppose potentially unconstitutional government demands.
The laws, according to the Indian government, are intended to avoid "abuse and misuse" of social media. In a March 17 letter to TIME, a representative of India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology wrote, "The new rules aim to empower users of social media by requiring these sites to put in place a robust public grievance redressal mechanism." "With the underlying premise of self-regulation to ensure compliance with established Indian rules, it puts digital media outlets on par with print and electronic media."
Under the new regulations, digital publications will be subject to government-run commissions, which will have the authority to prohibit articles from being published, remove stories, and even shut down entire websites. Reporters Without Borders, a non-governmental organization that promotes press freedom around the world, was one of the ten signatories to the open letter on Thursday.