MUMBAI - For global technology giants looking for growth, India was supposed to be an easier hunting ground than China. But New Delhi’s plan to compel the likes of Facebook and Alphabet's Google to actively police user-generated content threatens free speech. Coming after edicts that limit foreign giants Amazon and Walmart in e-commerce, the rules suggest India may not be a much easier bet than the People's Republic.
The proposal, made by the technology ministry in December, addresses a real problem. It’s an effort to curb the spread of misinformation after mob violence linked to messages circulated on Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which counts India as its largest market. The draft demands companies pre-screen user content, remove unlawful material within 24 hours and provide a way to trace the user. India is also asking any content provider with more than 5 million users to be locally incorporated.
A lobby group which includes the big U.S. names has criticised the plan, ratcheting up trade tensions between the two countries. Local companies, including billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio and social network Sharechat are less concerned with the interference. Certainly, India is not the first to seek to curb the internet and use it on their own terms, benefitting domestic players in the process.
But it’s a blow for tech behemoths who viewed the country of 1.3 billion people as a way to compensate for problems they have faced in larger and much richer China, which has, for years, banned the services of Facebook and YouTube owner-Google.
India’s sheer size and potential allow it to make some demands. But companies like Google have faced significant backlash at home when they have attempted to bow to the demands of authoritarian regimes. Now that India has almost half a billion internet users, foreign companies may find that prize comes with strings attached.
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- An Asian internet lobby group, which includes Alphabet’s Google and Facebook, on Jan. 31 criticised India’s plans to regulate social media content.
- The proposal drafted by India’s technology ministry in December would compel companies to pro-actively prescreen user-generated content, and remove unlawful items within 24 hours and, if asked by a government agency, provide a way to trace the offending user within 72 hours.
- The draft has a very broad definition of “unlawful”, including anything “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory” and which “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India” among other things.
- “We strongly feel that blanket regulation that is overly broad and contains vague and ambiguous language will jeopardise citizens’ fundamental rights to privacy and free speech,” the Asia Internet Coalition said in a press statement.
- India also wants any content provider with more than 5 million local users to incorporate in the country with a physical address and contact person.
- The rules are open for public comments until Feb. 14.
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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
(Editing by Clara Ferreira Marques and Sharon Lam) ((email@example.com; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org))