The biggest names in tech are locked in an increasingly tense stand-off with India over strict new social media rules they fear will erode privacy, usher in mass surveillance and harm business in the world’s fastest growing market.
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.
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.”