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A rising clash in India between social media companies and the government, which increasingly demands content censorship, could signal a spreading crackdown on speech by other countries, digital rights groups and international tech policy experts warn.
Tensions between the government of the world's second-most populous country and firms such as Facebook and Twitter have been increasing in India since February, when Indian regulators unveiled rules requiring the takedown of a wide array of content, including certain threats to "public order," within 36 hours of a government demand.
India's government in April ordered about 100 posts, many of them critical of the government's handling of COVID-19, be removed from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, in accordance with both the new policies and prior regulation. Delhi police also reportedly visited Twitter's offices in May after the platform placed a "manipulated media" warning label to a tweet from a spokesperson for the ruling party, and WhatsApp has reportedly sued the government over requirements to monitor content.
It could be just the beginning of a process that solidifies internet restrictions in coming years. Many experts see limits on content spreading to other countries from major markets like India thanks to the tendency of governments to imitate each other's regulations — particularly when they share a desire to dampen criticism or curb online harms, and when the companies know that defending users' free speech could prove costly.
The ways in which India developed its rules demonstrate the point, experts and advocates said. India's current policy, which requires that "significant social media" companies have a local company official be personally liable for compliance, arose in part from increasingly authoritarian and protectionist tendencies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party. But India was not the first; other governments have also passed regulations relating to social media. Germany, for example, adopted rules in 2017 that subject platforms to fines if they fail to remove "obviously illegal" speech within a day of a report — rules that provided an important model and show how regulations can jump from country to country.
"What Germany did by passing that law is it signaled globally you should take action," said Raman Jit Singh Chima, the Delhi-based Asia policy director for the international digital rights organization Access Now.
Chima said other countries that want to respond to concerns about tech or advance their political agendas online will now likely look into similar measures, treating India's rules as the new baseline to copy.
"What they do is they say, 'We're looking for some language, for a template we can adapt,'" Chima explained, adding that nearby Nepal and Bangladesh have previously considered rules highly similar to ones in India.
India is hardly alone: In addition to Germany, digital rights advocates have raised concerns about laws and proposals in a mix of relatively free and blatantly authoritarian nations such as the U.S., U.K., China, Singapore, Russia, Turkey and others. Yet as the world's largest democracy by population, India can bring great commercial pressure to companies that have sought global growth even as they insisted they were global defenders of free speech.
Companies such as Facebook and Twitter "are not human rights organizations," said David Kaye, the former United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. "They're businesses that want to make a boatload of money, and India's the largest market out there for them."
Platforms' existing power and reach, their desire to grow with India's population of 1.3 billion and a need to follow local law consequently permit governments to potentially limit a great deal of criticism with just a little pressure on a handful of firms, Kaye noted.
"The companies play this outsized role in public debate, freedom of expression, the flow of access to information," said Kaye, now a professor at the University of California Irvine's school of law. "Because of that, when they adhere to local law, they can also be joining forces in a way with government repression of human rights."
Particularly when it comes to content regulation, where social media sites already impose their own rules, companies have incentives to limit speech when it's merely controversial, rather than illegal, in one or more major markets. Filtering and monitoring systems for billions of pieces of content can already be expensive, and having to face divergent or vague rules across a worldwide network can exacerbate the cost and complexity.
Facebook and others have, for instance, extended similar political ad rules to several countries following efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere, while European hate speech rules often parallel the platforms' own policies. Beyond content regulation, many companies have also streamlined their privacy programs across multiple countries after Europe's GDPR rules required an update in several major markets.
"The platforms' lives are easier if they apply a single set of rules around the world," said Daphne Keller, who directs the program on platform regulation at Stanford University's Cyber Policy Center. "The very cheapest thing would be to use their terms of service to prohibit a superset of everything that's illegal in any country."
Keller and others don't necessarily see a global spread of such intense censorship as a likely endpoint, but worry nonetheless about spreading restrictions on speech. They worry too about the possibility that the internet could become more fragmented, with major markets such as the U.S., EU, China and India setting the terms for billions of users at a time within their own borders and political spheres. The internet may theoretically have begun as a nearly utopian system of worldwide connection and commerce, but in this splintering, some regions would have severe restrictions, and services might not work or allow easy communications among various parts of the world.
Many of the experts who spoke with Protocol conceded that a completely free-wheeling internet isn't necessarily desirable, either as a matter of public policy or for users who hope to enjoy social media environments. The digital space is already rife with terrorism, child exploitation, drugs, threats of violence, election meddling, scams, defamation, health misinformation, bullying, hatred against almost every group of people imaginable, offenses to local morality and more — what Keller calls "the full range of human misbehavior," sometimes organized to create massive harm in the real world.
To respond to this reality, narrowly-tailored content rules that aim to curb illegal speech, allow for transparency around government and company decisions and provide redress for abuses are far less problematic than broad limits that amount to giving the government the power to secretly suppress criticism, digital rights experts said. They added that regulations that aim to bring more data privacy or competition might also be wise or necessary policy.
Time's running out
There's mounting evidence that the companies themselves think India has gone too far in clamping down on dissent. In addition to WhatsApp's lawsuit, Twitter went public with its concerns about the law and what it called "potential threat to freedom of expression."
"We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules," the company said, adding that it planned "to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation."
In addition, Twitter is not yet in full compliance with the rule, according to a report in TechCrunch.
Still, many advocates said the social media companies have largely failed to send any consistent signals about what kinds of policies they would accept and which they would fight back against or even flout entirely. Countries with more robust human rights institutions have also done little to press other countries to avoid censorship and highly restrictive rules, the advocates say.
Indeed, advocates say, the best chance for global free discourse online may come down to the U.S. and EU somehow finding a way to respond together to countries that threaten to silence political critics online. Although the U.S. has been slow to settle on an approach to content policy, and some of its own proposals have come under criticism from human rights groups, it could ideally join with the EU to set more liberal approaches emphasizing free speech, transparency, due process and the rule of law even as it seeks to tackle illegal speech or prompt platforms to rein in the most egregious harms.
"I wish frankly that the U.S. would step up a bit more," said Katie Harbath, a former public policy director at Facebook.
The time may be running out to do so. Harbath said there may only be a few years to come to a consensus before "huge geopolitical moments" determine who will be in power in world governments with major stakes in global tech debates. In 2024 alone, she noted, elections are scheduled or expected for the U.S., the EU parliament, India, Indonesia, Taiwan and other countries.
"It's between now and 2024 where I think the die is going to be cast in one way or the other," she said. "I don't think we as a society are ready for what that is going to bring."