Home / Opinion / Columns /  India’s internet policy mustn’t develop Chinese characteristics

One of the laws under which India governs its telecom industry dates back to 1885—when Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone was not even a decade old. If the colonial-era Indian Telegraph Act is hopelessly anachronistic, its proposed replacement may also be problematic: The telecom bill wants to retain sweeping powers of state surveillance and apply them even to encrypted internet messages.

If the draft law passes in the current form, citizens of the world’s largest democracy will lose a further corner of what’s already a fast-shrinking space for privacy and free speech. Activists, dissidents and whistleblowers will find themselves particularly exposed; pressure will build on services like Meta’s WhatsApp, which has sued the Indian government for asking it to break end-to-end encryption, to fall in line. Eventually, India will move a little closer to a more Chinese-style, controlled internet.

The proposed telecom law is actually all about the internet. It seeks to bend the industry to the government’s will by imposing a licence requirement on everything from Gmail to FaceTime and Skype. Licensed services will have to “unequivocally identify" their customers. Likewise, message senders will have to be identifiable to recipients. “These provisions essentially strip away the user’s right to stay anonymous," said the Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, a think-tank. “Such a broad and excessive requirement, in the absence of a data protection law, fails to prioritize user safety and security."

Just last month, the government junked a personal data protection bill that had been in the making for five years, and decided to replace it with “a comprehensive legal framework." Going by the tenor of the draft telecom law, it’s unrealistic to expect India to lean toward European-style privacy safeguards. Both the public and private sector are happy to see everything from banking services to state subsidies linked to a controversial national repository of biometric identification. Monitoring the daily lives of 1.4 billion Indians with databases—to extract profit or wield power—is a leaf taken straight out of Beijing’s playbook.

Given a general lack of awareness of digital harm, [the model may not be hard to fit]. Recently, 50 million Indians geo-tagged their homes and uploaded their pictures with phone numbers to a culture ministry website after Prime Minister Narendra Modi [urged them to in celebration] of 75 years of India’s independence. Only security researchers found the idea outrageous.

On the other hand, there were howls of protest when Razorpay, a Bengaluru-based online payments gateway, was forced recently by the police to give up confidential user data that could be exploited by authorities to harass donors to Alt News, a fact-check website that finds itself increasingly at odds with the right-wing Modi government. As a regulated financial service provider, Razorpay had no choice. Now the same threat of being fined—or losing the right to operate—could be brought to bear on technology services firms.

When it comes to wanting to control the worldwide web, India is already something of a world leader: There have been more than 660 instances since 2012 when mobile or fixed-line internet was shut down in one part of the country or the other, according to the Software Freedom Law Centre, an advocacy group. The draft telecom bill simply seeks to formalize this arbitrary power, which is now used by various state governments—not just to stop the spread of misinformation during riots but also to prevent students from cheating in examinations.

That can hardly be the right blueprint for a rapidly modernizing economy where the private sector aspires to lead the world in digital businesses ranging from retail to finance and entertainment. But having seen and utilized the power of social media in winning elections, the Modi government looks unlikely to take a hands-off approach—not when the China model of heavy-handed control already exists.

Business interests will support what works for them. Twitter, which is suing India’s government over what it terms as “arbitrary" and “disproportionate" directions to block handles or take down content, won’t want its fate in the country to hang by a licence it can lose any time.

But across industries like social media, messaging and e-commerce, new domestic players will probably rush to support New Delhi. They may proclaim nationalist motivations, though Chinese-style firewall [protectionism might serve business interests and ambitions so that they can aspire to] become India’s Alibaba or Tencent.

In this confusing cross-connection of power and profit, the voice of the consumer and the citizen, whose interests are best served by a free and open internet, will struggle to be heard.

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services in Asia.

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