India's government is joining the rest of the world in seeking more direct control of the internet. We in the US used to be able to point at Section 230 immunity and the First Amendment as evidence of our hands-off approach, but with the passage of FOSTA and multiple legislators demanding tech companies engage in more moderation and less moderation simultaneously, we've ceded a lot of the high ground.
The Indian government, however, is seeking to expand its control of the internet far past what should be considered reasonable in a nation whose government pays occasional lip service to protecting free speech. In addition to its already-abused laws covering certain forms of speech -- which, in practice, tends to mean criticism of government officials -- the Indian government is demanding speedy takedowns of content and direct access for law enforcement to user info, posts, and comments around the clock.
The proposals would… require any platform with more than 5 million users in India to appoint a “person of contact” for “24x7 coordination with law enforcement agencies and officers”, keep a record of all “unlawful activity” for 180 days (or indefinitely if mandated by a court), and send monthly notifications to every user informing them that the platform can “remove non-compliant information” immediately and kick the user off.
This is the result of discussions with representatives from companies including Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, and Twitter. There's no word yet on how compliant these companies will be. The only news that's surfaced so far is the Indian government's long list of demands. And those demands include something becoming distressingly popular in world governments: broken encryption.
“[On] the face of it, [the government seems] to be contemplating pro-active censorship and breaking encryption with traceability,” Apar Gupta, an Indian Supreme Court lawyer and cofounder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, told the Indian Express. “They will make the internet a corporal environment, damaging the fundamental rights of users.”
This will more closely align India's control of the internet with the Chinese model (or the Australian model!) -- something no nation should be in any hurry to adopt. That tech companies may be willing to comply with these demands rather than lose millions of users is worse news for everyone who uses their platforms. One just needs to look at Turkey's stranglehold on Twitter to see where this will be headed: tech companies will be complying with laws not valid in their home countries, allowing authoritarian rulers to silence critics and stifle dissent by proxy.
From what's been observed so far, Whatsapp seems to be the only company publicly resisting the Indian government's advances. Buzzfeed reached out to the other companies involved in these talks but has not received any comments or statements in response. Whatsapp's refusal to cooperate with India's demands for broken encryption dates back several months, but it's unlikely to have changed its views on undermining the protections it offers its users.
It's more bad news for internet users around the world, some of whom are going to be caught up in the Indian government's new net rules, even though they don't reside in that nation. Agreeing to help the government directly police users and/or break encryption will create ripple effects felt far outside the borders of India.