India is now ground zero in a struggle over the instrument that so enhanced its democracy but now threatens to undermine it: the Internet.
In late December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government proposed new rules empowering it to order Internet companies like Facebook and Twitter to remove content from their platforms within 24 hours. The government broadly defines the rules as affecting “intermediaries,” which could potentially mean all Internet-based companies, from social media platforms to search engines to e-commerce platforms. The criticism was swift from Internet giants, who are calling the move a form of censorship and are mounting a legal battle.
With Indian general elections on the horizon, these rules are indeed a disturbing form of censorship but they also go beyond that. While they are only in draft form and currently open to public debate until Feb. 14, the rules state that if the government objects to an online post, Internet companies must provide information about the creator and sharers of the offensive content to government agencies within 72 hours. Nothing prevents the government from identifying individuals who may be posting information critical of the ruling party under the guise of an investigation.
Modi’s government argues that the rules — proposed by India’s Information Technology ministry — are necessary to curb the spread of fake news and hate-inducing propaganda. There are indeed a compelling reasons to filter out hate speech online, especially given how easily panic-inducing rumors on WhatsApp have ignited violence in parts of the country. And ahead of India’s national election this spring, all parties are concerned about trolls and bots using fake news to mislead voters. But giving the government more power to regulate the Internet, without procedural safeguards, isn’t the answer.
The government’s commitment to tackling fake news and hate speech is suspect. It has failed to discipline those within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party who routinely engage in such activities. Research undertaken by the BBC has revealed a great deal of overlap between sources generating fake news in India and networks working to garner support for Modi on social media. The research confirms the daily abuse and defamatory posts by BJP-supporting, nationalist Twitter trolls that many Twitter users have complained about for years. Not coincidentally, a report by the Association for Democratic Reforms revealed that, compared to other political parties, the BJP has the highest number of legislators facing court cases involving hate speech. Worse still, under Modi’s reign, hate speech by high-ranking politicians has increased by nearly 500 percent.
With this in mind, it is concerning just how broad and vague these new Internet censorship rules are. They note that “any government agency” can request removal of any post that affects the “sovereignty and integrity of India” or that violates “decency or morality.” The term “government agency” provides enough elbow room for any government body to make such requests. As they stand, the rules provide no oversight over the exercise of these broad powers. Ideally, the government should put all its requests for the removal of online content before a parliamentary committee or other bipartisan body, which can scrutinize the requests and publicize them through periodic reports. An oversight mechanism would reduce the possibility of misuse.
These proposed rules are not isolated. They are part of the Modi government’s pattern of seeking more and more digital control over and surveillance of its people. In April 2018, Modi’s government tried to set up a “Social Media Communication Hub” to collect digital chatter for the government to process. Thankfully, the Indian Supreme Court warned that such activities amounted to establishing a “surveillance state” and forced the government to scrap its plan.
In addition, Modi’s government has been trying to transition Aadhaar — India’s expansive biometric identification system — from a voluntary program to one that’s increasingly unavoidable when trying to access public and private services. Just this month, the government hastily passed a bill in the lower house of Parliament — over my objections as an opposition member — that leaves the door open for Aadhaar-based authentication to be mandatory for various public and possibly private services. This is dangerous not only because the data could be used irresponsibly but also because gaps in India’s IT infrastructure have already exposed the private data of millions of Indians several times over.
Developments like this prompted me and other members of Parliament and civil society to clamor for the enactment of a robust data protection law, including the regulation of surveillance powers. But in regard to the new Internet censorship proposal, we must make it be known loud and clear that while there is a need to better manage hate speech and fake news online, this is not the way to do it. Our citizens’ rights to privacy and free speech must be better protected.
The philosopher Jeremy Bentham once famously came up with the concept of the panopticon, a prison structure that would ensure constant surveillance of inmates. The idea of the panopticon was popularized by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who used it as a symbol of state surveillance to guarantee the obedience of the masses. I am deeply troubled to say that the cumulative actions of the Modi government suggest it is trying to turn India itself into a digital panopticon.
Shashi Tharoor, a former U.N. under-secretary-general, is currently a member of India’s Parliament and chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs.