The world’s biggest tech companies are embroiled in a tense standoff with India over new social media rules that they fear will erode privacy, usher in mass surveillance, and harm business in the world’s fastest-growing market.
The events of this week highlight the difficulties that Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR), and Google (GOOGL) are facing as they attempt to navigate an increasingly complex Indian political landscape and comply with new regulations that were set to take effect on Wednesday.
Indian police visited Twitter’s offices on Monday after the company labeled a tweet from a prominent member of the ruling party as “manipulated media.”
WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against the Indian government on Tuesday in response to the new rules. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration chastised the Facebook-owned platform for defying the “law of the land” in a “clear act of defiance.” Twitter said it was “concerned” about the safety of its employees in the country on Thursday.
The new regulations, according to Modi’s government, are reasonable and will aid in the protection of national security, public order, and crime reduction by making it easier to identify the sources of viral misinformation. The rules, according to the tech companies, are incompatible with democratic principles.
This is just the latest tussle in a tumultuous relationship between American tech companies and one of their most important markets. This year, India’s ruling party has tightened its grip on social media and messaging apps, especially since a second Covid-19 wave swept the country.
“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.
The Delhi police called Twitter’s response “contrived fear mongering” that is “unfounded and misplaced” in a statement released late Thursday.
Companies must create special compliance officers in India, according to the new rules, which were issued in February. There are also requirements that some content be removed from services, such as posts with “full or partial nudity.”
Furthermore, if authorities demand it, tech platforms must trace the “first originator” of messages, a requirement that prompted WhatsApp to file a legal complaint against the government. This demand, according to the company, would compromise the platform’s “end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermines people’s right to privacy.”
WhatsApp wrote in a blog post about why it opposes the practice that a government “that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance.”
WhatsApp’s lawsuit, according to India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, is a “unfortunate attempt” to prevent the new rules from taking effect at the last minute. The ministry stated that it respects people’s right to privacy and that it will only ask the platform to reveal personal information if it is needed for the investigation or prevention of “very serious offenses” such as rape, child sex abuse, or sexually explicit material.
The Indian government also stated that it was committed to ensuring all citizens’ right to privacy as well as the means to maintain national security.
“It is WhatsApp’s responsibility to find a technical solution, whether through encryption or otherwise, that both happen,” it added.
However, privacy isn’t the only issue that social media companies are concerned about. They must appoint a chief compliance officer, who could face legal consequences if flagged content is not removed. This requirement is problematic for WhatsApp and Twitter, according to CNN Business.
Indian authorities have also asked Silicon Valley companies to remove advertisements this year. In April, the government requested that Facebook and Twitter remove approximately 100 posts, some of which were critical of Modi’s Covid-19 response. India pressed Twitter to remove accounts it deemed incendiary in February, just weeks before the new social media rules were published.
Twitter expressed concern about “the potential threat to freedom of expression” in the country on Thursday.
However, India is far too large a market for any tech company to ignore, with hundreds of millions of internet users and more joining every day.
While WhatsApp has taken the unusual step of filing a lawsuit against the government, Google and Twitter have indicated their willingness to work with the government on most of the new rules’ requirements.
“It’s obviously early days and our local teams are very engaged … we always respect local laws in every country we operate in and we work constructively,” Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai told The Press Trust of India on Wednesday. CNN Business has reached out to the company for comment, but it has yet to receive a response.
“We will continue our constructive dialogue with the Indian government and believe it is critical to adopt a collaborative approach,” Twitter added in its statement Thursday.