Could you live in India without internet

India wants to further restrict internet freedom - critics warn against censorship based on the Chinese model

The Indian government wants to oblige operators of social platforms and news services to take action against “illegal content”. Providers like Whatsapp consider this impractical, the opposition speaks of censorship.

India likes to praise itself as the largest democracy in the world. When it comes to freedom on the Internet, Delhi repeatedly uses the measures that are widespread in autocracies: surveillance, blockades, censorship.

In the coming days, the right-wing nationalist government of Narendra Modi is likely to introduce a legal ordinance aimed at restricting the content that is allowed to be shared via social networks and news services.

Accordingly, operators of such platforms - for example Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp - would have to ensure in future that no “illegal content” is disseminated. This includes, for example, articles that incite terrorism and violence, are obscene or contain fake news. In the event of disregard on the part of the platform operator, they could be made liable for the shared content. This would be a substantial change compared to the current regulation, according to which Facebook, for example, cannot be legally prosecuted for contributions from its members.

The government drafted the amendment to the regulation at the end of 2018. After the non-binding public consultation phase ended on Thursday, the provision could become legally binding in the next few days.

"That comes very close to what China is doing to its citizens"

The Indian government sees the change as a necessary measure to improve the country's security. It is not only about curbing terrorism, but also about preventing lynching, as happened last year due to false reports. In fact, the number of acts of violence in India caused by false Facebook or Whatsapp reports has recently increased significantly.

For many civil society actors and the political opposition, the latest tightening of the law represents an attempt by the government to make public criticism more difficult and to limit the political debate in the interests of the ruling party.

Apar Gupta, director of the Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, told the New York Times that the proposed changes had an “authoritarian bias”. "That comes very close to what China is doing to its citizens: every movement is controlled, every post in the social networks is monitored."

Abhishek Manu Singhvi, MP and congress spokesman for the opposition Indian National Congress, spoke of a state attempt to decrypt and censure private data. The announced change “could lead to gross misuse of data, especially for political purposes”. Meanwhile, other opposition figures pointed out that the timing of the adjustments was no coincidence: In India, elections are expected to take place in April and May. Modi, who wants to be re-elected, could be tempted to abuse the new state powers to restrict social media in order to secure their own power.

«Impossible to implement»

In recent weeks, some of the IT companies that would be affected by the regulation themselves have also criticized the new regulation. Whatsapp intelligence spokesman Carl Woog recently said the requirements to review messages would require the service to be unencrypted today. "The result would be a completely different product, one that essentially no longer has any privacy."

Microsoft pointed out in a statement that the requirements provided for in the regulation were “impossible to implement”. The cost of reviewing all contributions is simply “unacceptable”, and the measure would nip digital innovations in the bud and force small companies out of the market.

With a population of 1.3 billion, India is one of the largest digital user markets in the world. It is the largest site ever for the Whatsapp news service, which has over 200 million users in the country.

India's troubles with the free network

The latest intervention by the Indian government in the freedom of the network does not come as a surprise. In recent years, access to the network has been repeatedly cut in various parts of the country by order of government representatives, with the blockade affecting partly only the Internet and partly the entire cellular network.

According to a study by the American think tank Freedom House, Internet access was blocked over a hundred times in the country in 2018 alone - a record worldwide. The government usually justified the measure with security concerns or “political tensions”.

The latest example: after the attack on Thursday in the province of Kashmir, the government immediately ordered a regional Internet blockade. That seems legitimate against the background of this grave event. However, it is not the first network blocking in the region: According to an Indian NGO, access here has been cut no fewer than 132 times since 2012. In 2016, the region was without internet access for 133 consecutive days.