Monday, December 4, 2023

More Repression Ahead?

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By Vikram Kilpady

Internet freedom in India has not been something to crow about over the last decade. It has decidedly dipped, as reported by Freedom House, a Washington DC-based non-profit, for the period June 2022 to May 2023. The report, which was out in October, ranked India at 50 on a score of 1 (most repressive) to 100 (the least repressive). The report took into account 70 countries which account for 88% of the world’s internet users. China tops the list as the most repressive, joined by Myanmar at number 2, while Iceland tallies as the least repressive. The report studied the frequency of Internet shutdowns and requests to WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to take down posts or block them.

The situation in India seems to have reversed since 2013, when the social media apps had unfettered access. Then, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and X (formerly Twitter) were the springboard for propaganda and information. We are all aware of successive champions of whataboutery, whose sole information inlet was WhatsApp, and the many UNESCO accolades India was said to have received, from an award for the tricolour to one for the national anthem, all shared very eagerly every now and then.

With the Narendra Modi government looking on course to a second re-election in 2024, the spotlight is on social media ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. As the Freedom House report noted, the internet shutdowns and curbs on social media in India will likely get stricter as 2024 wades in.

Possibly in line with curbing fake news and misinformation, the Delhi Police, which reports to Home Minister Amit Shah, recently played host to officials from Meta, the company that owns Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Threads. The meeting was attended by the Special Commissioner of Police (Special Cell), DCPs of districts and SHOs of cyber crime stations, among others. The brief of the said meeting was to discuss issues pertaining to cyber crime and the data sought by law enforcement agencies. A report quoted an anonymous Delhi Police official saying the Meta team was firm in its view that data, like login or logout times, should be requested only in cases of heinous crimes or in crimes with larger implications, thus pointing to the umbrella “national security” term.

In case of the law approaching Meta for information, the Meta officials wanted a background of every case and how the information sought was relevant to action related to the crime. Here’s where the Meta officials seem to have impressed upon Delhi Police not to push for data on logins and logouts for every case. As with every government department, the police go with a proforma template in which it seeks every bit of data to establish its case. The Meta officials were keen that the police should ask for login and logout data only in heinous crimes and issues of gravity, and with an explanation on the relevance of the data sought in each case.

Meta also asked the police to limit requests from it for large amounts of data. The app’s officials recommended to the police that they give priority to requests in important cases. The Delhi Police official said the police were asked to seek data from WhatsApp from its US corporate address instead of from Meta. The Delhi Police then narrowed their queries on WhatsApp, which is possibly the greatest tool for sharing fake news and malicious propaganda, and is often the reason why mobile internet gets yanked the moment communal and sectarian passions are inflamed. Look no further than Manipur, where social media is the weapon used by both sides with the dominant community retaining an upper hand.

In the October meeting, the Delhi Police wanted to know what IP addresses and their type can be provided by WhatsApp. Listing the procedure, the Meta team said they could give only the current IP and the last seen IP. They added that they can’t give IP information if the account is barred or blocked. The Delhi Police was keen to find out about identifying people who create messages found to be fake or malicious via IMEI or device details. The Meta team said it didn’t have that information at hand, but could examine it further. Regarding cyber crime, Meta said they retain data for up to 90 days, a limit which can be extended.

The police also asked if Meta can help law enforcement to detect people creating child sexual abuse material and those who share images of forced, non-consensual intimacy. The Meta team said Meta has developed a tool to investigate crimes of that nature, which is undergoing tests at the National Crime Records Bureau. Social media companies are wary of the powers of the Indian State. The country was the largest market for the Chinese-owned, runaway success TikTok, but that was culled in a ban on apps from China. Suddenly, cringe-worthy videos that hit the viral wave regularly were taken off one’s phones.

To paraphrase an Emergency-era quote of a veteran BJP leader now in his 90s, the apps, like the Emergency-era media at large, have lain on the ground when asked to bend here and there. The threat is real for these companies. A former Information Technology minister said on record the apps make money here in India and can’t take exception to conforming to Indian laws and can’t be ruled by the laws of America. The revenues are here, which is why mindless videos crowd one’s interface with each of these apps, forcing users to watch one more video. The fact that they are tailored for your biases and kinks has not sunk in for the vast majority of social media users.

Twitter and YouTube took down the first part of the BBC documentary India: the Modi Question, the moment the Government of India spoke of emergency powers. The anti-CAA protests and the farmers’ protest that laid siege to Delhi also took to social media, and how. Twitter, then under Jack Dorsey, sided with the farmers. Soon enough, the government spoke of the new IT Rules 2021 that mandated appointment of Indian residents as full-time executives in the multi-national apps in 90 days. Meta and Google did what the government asked to continue to enjoy immunity over posts on their platforms, Twitter didn’t. It was hauled to court over a post hurting Hindu sentiment. Now all is hunky-dory with Elon Musk at the helm, a maverick billionaire is easier to do business with! Notice the profusion of paid-for blueticks, now a blight compared to when the tick was a status symbol.

Meta has been a longer-term player.The Wall Street Journal ran an investigative piece on how its former India policy head Ankhi Das didn’t act on hate speech by people from the BJP. She didn’t even hide her biases and was in fact proud of being of assistance to Modi in defeating the Congressled UPA in 2014, repeating the exercise of 2012, when Modi won the Gujarat assembly election. Das didn’t even take down posts offensive to communities, a prime example being of a BJP MLA from Telangana who made offensive posts on Muslims. They were, however, taken down after The Wall Street Journal series.

Facebook and Twitter, to a lesser extent, though not by a great margin, were the go-to destinations for trolls who converged like vampires on Opposition leaders and journalists who were not of their same conviction. From calling the scribes names and insulting them to insinuating affairs with long-deceased leaders, everything was fair game. Jawaharlal Nehru was a favourite for bashing, right from hugging his niece, sharing a cigarette with a woman, dancing with women, and what not. There were no holds barred in the besmirching of freedom fighters all in the name of evicting a family from power.

Correcting itself after The Wall Street Journal reports and being called out in several countries, including the US, for meddling with democracy, Facebook has become smarter. Try posting a comment or sharing a pro-Palestinian point of view now, Facebook will be quick to notify you that your post is not in consonance with facts. It will instead offer you pro-Israeli links to attempt to change your opinion.

Harvesting data from social media is passé when one looks at it now, after 2021. India saw the Pegasus affair break out that year and saw major frontpage headline action, the matter is now in the courts. Even before we could forget Pegasus and NSO, a recent Apple warning to users on the data security of its phones reminded us of the ever-ready snooping around us. Now the smartphones seem to be conscientious defectors, ever ready to pass on information that can land one in trouble with the law. It is said, fact is stranger than fiction and can even veer to the dystopian. As Orwell noted in 1984: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

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