Home / Politics / News /  India’s tech regulation onslaught poses dilemma for US companies

The continuing tussle between India and U.S. social-media companies shows how difficult it is to rein in technology platforms’ outsize—and sometimes pernicious—influence on public discourse without radically enhancing governments’ power to police speech.

Recent developments in India are worth watching for the precedents they could set, particularly for other large developing democracies. In June, the Indian government announced plans for the formation of a Grievance Appellate Committee, or GAC, to hear users’ complaints against technology platforms’ content-moderation decisions. The aim would be similar to that of Facebook’s Oversight Board—with the ability to review and potentially overturn content takedown or account blocking orders.

Last week, two local media outlets including The Economic Times reported that, despite strong pushback from large tech platforms including Facebook parent Meta Platforms, Google and Twitter, the Indian government plans to push ahead.

The members of the panel would be appointed by the government. And therein lies the first of the concept’s many problems. While creating an external channel for appealing the decisions of powerful social-media companies is arguably reasonable, the GAC could simply shift the discretionary power to police speech to politicians or bureaucrats—with the clear potential for political bias to shape the outcome.

It is also debatable whether such a government-backed panel would stand the test of law. Some previous amendments to intermediary rules of the Information Technology Act have been challenged in Indian courts.

According to Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at Access Now, the government’s proposed mechanism isn’t the answer to the problem of lack of transparency by social-media companies to resolving user complaints, as it would be prone to misuse by the government.

India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology didn’t respond to a request seeking comment on GAC.

Twitter sued the Indian government in July over some content takedown orders and WhatsApp approached the Delhi High Court last year on intermediary rules that allowed for traceability of encrypted messages. However, for the most part, U.S. social-media companies have towed the government’s line.

According to Wall Street Journal investigations, Facebook’s services in India were instrumental in spreading religious hate, its internal documents have shown. Facebook researchers determined that two Hindu nationalist groups with ties to India’s ruling political party posted inflammatory anti-Muslim content on the platform, The Wall Street Journal reported. Facebook spokesman then said that some of the reports were working documents containing investigative leads for discussion, adding that the company prohibits hate speech and violence globally.

India has a total number of internet users estimated at 640 million by Bain & Co.—around twice the population of the U.S. The sheer size of the market makes it key to American technology giants looking to capture developing markets, particularly given the unique challenges that China presents. Former Minister of Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad in early 2021 said that WhatsApp had 530 million users in India.

The risk for American technology companies is that however much they give in to Indian government demands to stay in the market could set precedents in other markets around the world. They should be more circumspect in their decisions.

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