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‘Wolf in Watchdog Costume’: India’s New Digital Media Laws Raise Fears of Independence

Shortly before he was elected Prime Minister of India in 2014, Narendra Modi spoke of his dreams of a “digital India” where “access to information knows no barriers”.

But this week, from online news to social media and movies and television to television, all sorts of extraordinary hurdles came into play, controlling India’s digital realm the most of any major democracy.

The process of clearing out new IT laws brings to the fore almost everything that happens online under a set of government regulations, including government powers to remove “objectionable” online content and social media. But this includes erasing people’s right to privacy and encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp.

The move has sparked a backlash in the tech and media world, with several online publishers challenging the rules in the Delhi High Court this week.

“The new rules bring democracy and free speech in a very dangerous direction, all to promote online safety and make India safer,” said Rihanna Pfeiffer Korn, a research scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. Are under the guise of. “

Tech companies are now ordered by the government to regularly monitor people’s conversations on their platforms – and keep identification data of users who can be handed over to the government upon demand. “It’s going to have a chilling effect. If people know they’re being watched, people want to say and do it online,” said Pfeiffer Korn.

“Suppliers are being pressured to consider the Indian government as illegitimate or a threat to India’s security, in a category that now includes criticizing the Modi government,” he said.

A crackdown on dissent

The government has insisted that the new rules level the playing field, and regulate online content, such as traditional newspapers, television and film. A press note announcing the rules called them “progressive” and “liberal.” “We want them to be more responsible and accountable,” said Ravi Ravi Shankar Prasad, IT Minister for Digital Platforms.

Yet even India’s mainstream media, which rarely speaks out against the government, expressed concern, with an editorial in a Hindu newspaper calling the new rules “wolves in guard clothes”. And described them as “deeply troubled because they would end the overthrow of the government. Taking advantage of online news publishers and middlemen.”

The Editors’ Guild of India issued a scathing statement over the weekend stating that the laws “fundamentally change the way news publishers operate on the Internet and take media freedom in India seriously”. Are capable of “.

Many have seen this principle as a continuation of the dictatorial crackdown on dissent from the Modi government. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression have been severely curtailed since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. The mainstream media is largely in the hands of the government, but this online news There are platforms that have become one of the last strongholds of independent journalism. .

Social media, such as Twitter, is also used as an important organizing and informational tool for anti-government activities, such as the massive farmers’ demonstrations that have been going on in India since November. In return, the government has sought to take control of the platform, for example by demanding that Twitter remove thousands of government accounts and threaten to arrest its staff if the company does not comply. ۔

The protesting farmer checks his mobile phone while resting on a blocked highway. Photographer: Prakash Singh / AFP / Getty Images

In fact, controlling access to the digital realm has become a regular means of curbing dissent by the Modi government. This year, for the third year in a row, India topped the global list for most Internet shutdowns, according to digital rights group X9. Of the 155 Internet shutdowns worldwide in 2020, 109 were in India.

‘Clearly illegal’

This principle will fundamentally change the fact that big tech companies like Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Twitter, operate in India, one of the largest and most lucrative markets in the world. Tech companies are still silent on whether they will comply, but Internet company Mozilla said the “impact of these provisions will have a devastating effect on freedom of expression, privacy and security.”

“They call these principles self-regulating,” said Prasant Sugathan, legal director of the Software Freedom Law Center. “But when you have a formal procedure that ends with a government agency that can remove any decision-making content – perhaps because it is a criticism of the government – then it is self-made. It could turn into state censorship. “

Indian digital news platforms The Wire in and The News Mint are among the weeks that have challenged IT rules in court, saying in a petition filed in the Delhi High Court that they are “clearly non-existent”. Are legal.

Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of The Wire, described the laws as a “coercive architecture” that gave the government the power to delete or amend content, giving it “the rights that freedom of the press.” Are contrary to the constitutional guarantee of. “

Dhanya Rajendran, editor of News Minute, said: “We have argued that this is a threat to fundamental rights.

The effect of these regulations is already being felt. Streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime and Netflix, which were previously out of government control, will now be subject to the same strict rules of content, and this week, Amazon Prime canceled two upcoming shows.

“The Indian government is trying to say what is acceptable and unacceptable online, and is encouraging tech providers to censor their customers because at the cost of continuing to do business in India, Pfeiffer Corn said.

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