India’s new restrictions designed to control public discourse on social platforms, including WhatsApp and Twitter, have sparked a backlash as concerns grow about the government scrutiny of online speech.
The sweeping rules, announced on Feb. 25, require “intermediaries” to delete or amend content deemed problematic. Critics are alarmed by the broad discretion given to the government to determine what content is troublesome.
Local media have stepped up efforts to fight the new restrictions. News website Live Law Media filed a petition with the High Court of Kerala this month challenging the rules as “arbitrary, vague [and] unreasonable.” The Foundation for Independent Journalism, publisher of digital outlet The Wire, submitted a similar petition to the Delhi high court.
Besides Facebook and other social media, video streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix and online news outlets are subject to the new rules.
They appear to give the government great discretion. Social media platforms can be ordered to remove information that “threatens the unity, integrity, defense, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order,” for example.
This vague language could in effect let the government take down anything it wants, argued a partner at a Mumbai-based law firm.
Companies must remove offending content within 36 hours of being so ordered, as well as enable the identification of the user who initially posted it. While no removal orders have yet been issued, companies will have difficult choices to make once implementation begins in earnest.
The regulations pose a particularly thorny dilemma for Facebook-owned chat app WhatsApp, which features encryption to ensure that only the sender and recipient can view messages. If New Delhi requires that the service allow for problematic messages to be traced back to their origin, this encryption may need to be broken.
WhatsApp head Will Cathcart hinted in a podcast this month that the service could be forced to withdraw from the market if it cannot find a solution that does not involve touching the encryption.
“We’ve been willing to make some really hard calls to defend encryption,” Cathcart said. “If you’re talking about break[ing] encryption, it’s really hard for me to imagine being comfortable with it.
“We face this in a bunch of places, and we’ve been blocked in places,” he said.
Twitter, meanwhile, is already on thin ice.
Ongoing protests by farmers against controversial agricultural reforms have touched off a deluge of Twitter posts criticizing the government, from users both inside and outside the country. When authorities demanded that Twitter block anti-government accounts, the platform made some unavailable within India but refused to touch accounts belonging to news media, activists or politicians.
The government has threatened to file criminal charges against Twitter executives in India in a bid to force the company to cooperate, while pushing a similar platform known as Koo that has New Delhi’s stamp of approval.
The restrictions add fuel to concerns over “democratic backsliding” in India. US-based Freedom House’s latest report on democracy around the world ranked the country as only “partly free” for the first time in more than two decades, citing a crackdown on critics as one factor.