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High tech companies - India tension can lead to a possible stand-off

May 28, 2021 | 23:36

The biggest high-techs are in intension with India over new social media rules that will invade privacy of the users and usher in mass surveillance, which can lead to an incredibly tense stand-off.

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This week's events underscore the challenges facing Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR) and Google (GOOGL) as they try to navigate an increasingly tricky Indian political landscape and deal with the new regulations, which were due to take effect on Wednesday.

On Monday, Indian police visited Twitter's offices after it labeled a tweet from a prominent official of the governing party as "manipulated media." On Tuesday, WhatsApp sued the Indian government over the new rules. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration rebuked the Facebook-owned platform for its "clear act of defiance" when it comes to following the "law of the land." And on Thursday, Twitter said it was "concerned" about the safety its employees in the country, according to CNN.

India has 400 million whatsApp users, making the country its biggest market (Photo: Getty Images0
India has 400 million whatsApp users, making the country its biggest market (Photo: Getty Images0

Modi's government insists that the new regulations are reasonable and will help protect national security, maintain public order and reduce crime by making it easier to identify the sources of viral misinformation. The tech companies say the rules are inconsistent with democratic principles.

This is just the latest tussle in an increasing contentious relationship between American tech companies and one of their largest markets. India's ruling party has intensified its crackdown on social media and messaging apps this year, particularly since a second Covid-19 wave engulfed the country.

Twitter's decision to label the tweet from a spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party earned it a visit from the Delhi police. The police said the visit was a "part of a routine process" to get Twitter to cooperate with its investigation. The social media giant called it "intimidation tactics."

"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 in a statement Thursday.

"We plan to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation," it added.

In a statement late Thursday, the Delhi police called Twitter's response "contrived fear mongering" that is "unfounded and misplaced."

WhatsApp – India lawsuit

In February, the government introduced new guidelines to regulate content on social media and streaming platforms.

India is WhatsApp's largest market with about 400 million users.

A WhatsApp advertisement is seen on the front pages of newspapers at a stall in Mumbai, India, January 13, 2021. (Photo: CNN)
A WhatsApp advertisement is seen on the front pages of newspapers at a stall in Mumbai, India, January 13, 2021. (Photo: CNN)

The government's rules for social media said that messaging platforms would need to make provisions for the "identification of the first originator of the information".

Whatsapp filed a plea in the high court in Delhi asking it to declare the new rule unconstitutional, BBC reported.

In a statement, a WhatsApp spokesperson said that the rules "would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermine people's right to privacy".

"We have consistently joined civil society and experts around the world in opposing requirements that would violate the privacy of our users. In the meantime, we will also continue to engage with the government of India on practical solutions aimed at keeping people safe, including responding to valid legal requests for the information available to us," WhatsApp said.

According to the messaging service, traceability of texts would force private companies to collect and store billions of messages sent each day for the sole purpose of turning it over to law enforcement agencies.

Censorship fears

Silicon Valley firms have also been asked to take down posts this year by the Indian authorities. In April, the government asked Facebook and Twitter to remove around 100 posts, including some that were critical of Modi's Covid-19 response. In February, just a few weeks before the new social media rules were published, India pressured Twitter to take down accounts it deemed incendiary.

Twitter said Thursday that it was concerned about "the potential threat to freedom of expression" in the country.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

But with hundreds of millions of internet users, and more getting online every day, India is too big a market for any tech company to ignore. While WhatsApp has taken the unusual step of suing the authorities, Google and Twitter have signaled their willingness to engage with the government on most of the requirements in the new rules.

"It's obviously early days and our local teams are very engaged ... we always respect local laws in every country we operate in and we work constructively," Google's CEO Sundar Pichai told The Press Trust of India on Wednesday. The company has not yet responded to a request for comment from CNN Business.

"We will continue our constructive dialogue with the Indian government and believe it is critical to adopt a collaborative approach," Twitter added in its statement Thursday.

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