The new pieces of legislation were proposed as 2018 came to a close and require technology companies like Facebook and Google to store user data locally, and would also require these companies to police content and remove material the government of India deems unlawful. Such content would include messages that threaten the “sovereignty and integrity of India.” The rules requires these companies to take action on such messages within a 24 hour period.
Such regulations that require companies to monitor content isn’t unique to India. Vietnam has recently passed similar laws, with similar potential consequences.
New rules also mandate that companies reveal the origin of particular messages when that information is requested. If that section of the law were enforced it would a deal a major blow in particular to Facebook’s popular messaging service WhatsApp, which boasts end-to-end encryption as a user privacy protection measure.
These new regulations will not only affect these companies’ ability to do business in India, but also, as the country’s edges closer to national elections, these rules have rights defenders worried about the potential they have to make online expressions of dissent even more fraught.
Laws like these follow along a worrying trend line in India.
2018 saw a slew of arrests against rights activists. Amnesty International called out this episode for “creating an atmosphere of fear” and accused the Indian government of threatening “core human rights values.” This episode sparked an online backlash and resulted in the creation of a hashtag that celebrated dissent freedom of expression, and constructive government critique.
Similarly, 2018 was a year for backsliding when it comes to Indian press freedom. India dropped by two spots on the 2018 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, where it now sits at 138 out of 180 countries. In assessing its rankings, RSF identified the “deadly threat from Modi’s nationalism” as the main driver of that drop.
“With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals,” the report said.
As Indian voters get closer to making their voices heard, the government’s reaction to public dissent and criticism will certainly be something crucial to watch.