Modi Is Muzzling Big Tech

Silicon Valley has spent years courting India, but its companies face an increasingly tricky censorship minefield in the world’s largest democracy.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg attend a town hall meeting.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg attend a town hall meeting.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg attend a town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, on Sept. 27, 2015. SUSANA BATES/AFP via Getty Images

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This week, India made global headlines by banning a BBC documentary on its prime minister, Narendra Modi, which focused on his role in religious riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002 when he was the state’s chief minister. The broadcast ban included a directive to YouTube and Twitter under the country’s technology laws, demanding they take down links to the documentary, which a government advisor said the companies complied with. 

This week, India made global headlines by banning a BBC documentary on its prime minister, Narendra Modi, which focused on his role in religious riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002 when he was the state’s chief minister. The broadcast ban included a directive to YouTube and Twitter under the country’s technology laws, demanding they take down links to the documentary, which a government advisor said the companies complied with. 

A YouTube spokesperson told Foreign Policy that it blocked the documentary “due to a copyright claim” by the BBC but declined to confirm whether the Indian government had demanded a takedown. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. 

The Modi government cited “emergency” powers under new technology rules it enacted in 2021, buttressing existing laws with the power to take down any content it deems as contravening “the sovereignty and integrity of India, public order, friendly relations with foreign countries, etc.” Local employees of tech companies that flout the rules face the threat of jail time. Those rules, digital rights advocates and experts fear, have given Modi carte blanche to go after critics and opponents, shrinking the space for free speech—online and otherwise. 

“Modi has always seen the media as an arena to control,” said Aliya Bhatia, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology’s free expression project. “Tech companies are an extension of this arena of control for this government. The real issue here is about the impunity and opacity with which Modi is using emergency powers to control what users can say online.”

Having spent several years welcoming global tech companies into India, Modi and his government are increasingly now trying to bring them to heel. A series of clashes with the likes of WhatsApp, Twitter, Amazon, and Netflix indicate that social media and the digital realm are becoming ever more integral to Modi’s long-standing effort to control the public narrative and shut down critics.

The Indian government is now looking to significantly expand that control, proposing another amendment to its technology laws last week that would require online platforms to take down information identified as “fake or false” by the government’s own Press Information Bureau or by other government agencies. The proposal was slammed as “censorship” by the Editors Guild of India, a leading journalist group.

“The trend to notice with India is this doubling down [and] refusal to turn away from the path of intimidation for digital authoritarian steps that we’ve been seeing with the government for the last two to three years in particular,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director and senior international counsel at digital rights organization Access Now. 

As far as Big Tech’s relationship with India goes: It’s complicated. With more than 800 million internet users—more than twice the population of the United States and second only to China’s out-of-bounds internet ecosystem—India has enticed the likes of Meta, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Netflix to invest several years and billions of dollars in staking their claim. Those companies face a delicate dance between protecting their users and their business in what is probably their most important growth market.

The larger the market and the more economic leverage a country has, the more weight it can throw around when it comes to dictating policies to tech companies,” said Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Given that Big Tech is locked out of China, India remains the next biggest market in the world and a place that companies are strongly motivated to keep doing business in.”

Not that companies haven’t pushed back. WhatsApp, the Meta-owned messaging platform that has more users in India than any other country, sued the government over the 2021 technology rules shortly after they were rolled out and has previously rebuffed Indian government demands to trace individual users by breaking its encryption. 

The smallest of the Big Tech platforms, however, has arguably been Modi’s biggest target. As is the case in the rest of the world, Twitter in India has fewer users than many of its social media peers, but it is hugely influential among politicians, journalists, celebrities, and other prominent individuals. (Modi is the most-followed current head of state on the platform, with more than 86 million followers.) But Twitter has also borne the brunt of India’s scrutiny and pressure in recent years; according to the company’s most recent transparency report, India has consistently been among the top five sources of legal demands to take down content, and it ranked first in the number of legal demands against verified journalists and news outlets. 

Things came to a head two years ago, when Twitter refused government requests to take down accounts of journalists and activists sharing information about widespread protests against Modi by India’s farmers, drawing criticism from Indian officials. A few months later, police in New Delhi raided Twitter’s offices in the city after the platform labeled tweets from Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, as “manipulated media.” Last year, Twitter sued the Indian government over further orders to block content, arguing that the orders were disproportionate and violated Twitter users’ rights.

This week, however, Twitter appeared to cave fairly quickly. And the difference may be its new owner: Elon Musk. The billionaire, who purchased Twitter last October, has purported to champion “freedom of speech” but said he simply defines it as “that which matches the law.” And Musk’s actions thus far have indicated that his concern for Twitter’s business outside the United States is severely limited at best, with his slashing of more than half of Twitter’s global workforce, including the bulk of the India and Africa teams. Even as Twitter’s case against the Indian government (filed months before Musk took over) makes its way through the courts, it’s quite possible Modi will find a far more compliant Twitter going forward. 

First I’ve heard,” Musk said in a tweet on Wednesday when asked about Twitter’s blocking of the BBC documentary in India. “It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things,” he added, referring to his other companies.

The spat over the BBC documentary highlights the Modi government’s apparent willingness to bully one of its bêtes noires. 

It’s possible that the Indian government is testing Musk’s resolve, particularly in light of recent lawsuits and contention between Twitter and the Indian government regarding content takedown requests,” Feldstein said. “This bears watching, but Musk’s reluctance thus far to challenge Modi’s directive isn’t a good sign.”

There will likely be some self-imposed limits on how far Modi goes, however, with the Indian leader engaged in a balancing act of his own. Although he has shown a willingness to ban foreign tech platforms—including TikTok and WeChat—in the past, he rose in power and popularity in part by effectively leveraging Western social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Modi enthusiastically courted Silicon Valley in his first term as prime minister from 2014 to 2019, visiting the tech hub in 2015 and meeting a host of tech CEOs, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai. He has also hosted several tech executives in New Delhi, with Pichai visiting as recently as last month. 

And while his government’s relationship with global tech giants has gotten somewhat chillier in recent years, Modi remains eager to present India as a key global player, particularly with his country taking over the G-20 presidency and with a national election on the horizon in 2024.

“Part of the Modi narrative is that he is business-friendly, he’s a technology lover, he is welcoming the world to India, and he wants to ensure India’s seat at the high table of powerful nations of the world. So to switch off social media would be a gigantic reversal of that,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “It’s kind of like him becoming almost a Vladimir Putin in India, which wouldn’t serve his purpose,” referring to the Russian president. 

Rishi Iyengar is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Iyengarish

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