India threatens jail time for Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter employees

The Indian government has threatened to jail Facebook employees Inc.,

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your WhatsApp and Twitter drive Inc.

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as he seeks to quell political protests and gain far-reaching powers over speech on foreign-owned tech platforms, people familiar with the warnings say.

The warnings are a direct response to tech companies’ reluctance to comply with data and government takedown requests related to protests by Indian farmers that have made international headlines, the people say. At least some of the written warnings cite specific India-based employees at risk of arrest if companies fail to comply, according to two of the people.

The threats mark an escalation of India’s efforts to pressure US tech companies at a time when those companies are looking to the world’s second most populous nation to grow in the next few years.

Some of the government data requests involve WhatsApp, which is very popular in India and promises users encrypted communications, which cannot be read by third parties.

A WhatsApp spokesperson said the company complies with data requests that are “consistent with internationally recognized standards, including human rights, due process and the rule of law.” A Facebook spokesperson said the company “responds to government data requests in accordance with applicable law and our terms of service.”

Twitter “will continue to advocate for the fundamental principles of the open Internet,” a company spokesperson said, adding: “Threats to these principles are increasing around the world, which is cause for deep concern.”

A spokeswoman for the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology did not respond to requests for comment.

India has been setting new rules that give its leaders power over online speech to a degree unmatched in other open societies, legal analysts say.

The rules require tech companies to appoint India-based executives to deal with government requests, including a contact person for “24×7 coordination with law enforcement agencies and officers to ensure compliance” with the orders, say the rules.

The rules would also force companies to remove content that undermines national security, public order, and “decency or morals.”

Indian rules require some companies, like WhatsApp, to help identify the sender of messages.


Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg News

Some companies, such as WhatsApp, must also help identify the sender of messages. A government representative said the rules would require platforms to track and store logs of specific messages as they travel between users.

“In a way, you will know if a message is going viral or not,” Rakesh Maheshwari, director of cyber law at India’s IT Ministry, said at a Zoom forum hosted by an Indian Internet trade association on Thursday.

Greg Nojeim, lead counsel for the think tank at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, said the guidelines would require WhatsApp to archive what each user shares, robbing them of the absolute privacy provided by end-to-end encryption, one of the older application. Benefits for the user.

“A large country, by adopting and enforcing these rules, could cause the big messaging platforms to withdraw or not offer encrypted services around the world,” Nojeim said.

As India celebrated Republic Day in late January, farmers clashed with police in what marked a violent escalation in a month-long protest movement over the government’s new farm laws. Photo: Anushree Fadnavis / Reuters (Originally published Jan 26, 2021)

Legal observers say the rules do not provide a clear legal way to contest requests to remove content or provide user data. Under the Indian legal system, such requests do not require prior court approval.

Beyond the risk of arrests, non-compliance would also threaten the future of tech companies in a market of more than 1.3 billion people who, since they are excluded from China, is key to their global growth.

Facebook and WhatsApp have more users in India than in any other country. Facebook said last year it would spend $ 5.7 billion on a new partnership with an Indian telecom operator to expand operations in the country, its largest foreign investment. India is also Twitter’s fastest growing global market and is crucial to its expansion as growth slows in more developed countries.


How can tech platforms balance freedom of speech with political demands in India? Join the conversation below.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already shown that it is willing to shut down popular social media platforms, last year banning TikTok, which had a much larger user base than Twitter, amid tensions with China.

Twitter in recent weeks blocked, unblocked and then re-blocked hundreds of accounts in India for posting material that the Indian government deemed inflammatory. The company has said that it refused to withdraw other accounts despite government orders.

According to the most recent statistics released by Google, Facebook and Twitter, companies regularly reject requests for user data and data deletion from India. Facebook’s platforms fulfilled half of the government’s orders for user data, Google with 58% and Twitter with 1%, figures well below the global averages for companies. Resistance to future requests could put them in violation of the law.

The Indian government seems ready to fight. The Delhi Police, which reports to the country’s Interior Ministry, arrested Indians who allegedly collaborated with foreigners through Zoom, WhatsApp and Google documents in a “toolkit” of activism on social media in support of farmers. protesting. Police said creating and promoting the fact sheet amounted to sedition.

All three companies declined to comment on government data requests related to the incident. News Corp,

owner of the Wall Street Journal publisher, Dow Jones & Co., has a business agreement to provide news via Facebook. Dow Jones has a business agreement to supply video content through Twitter.

A judge released one of the activists on bail last month, attributing the charges against her to “the wounded vanity of the government.” Nonetheless, the arrests serve as a warning to both Indian dissidents and foreign tech platforms, said Mo Dhaliwal, co-founder of the Poetic Justice Foundation, a volunteer-run Canadian nonprofit that created the initial version of the kit. tools.

“They are sending signals to anyone who dares to organize or communicate through these tools that ‘if he does it again, we will find him,'” Dhaliwal said.

Mounting pressure has left tech companies in a bind, said Jason Pielemeier, policy director for the Global Network Initiative, a group focused on human rights and online privacy that is partially funded by tech companies.

“In a market the size of India, it is difficult to take the nuclear option, that is, ‘We will not comply, and if you block us, we will deceive you or accept the consequences. he said.

Pielemeier compared the demands of the Indian government regarding content, privacy and data access to those made by the Chinese government before major internet platforms pulled out of the country in recent years.

The Indian government has painted the platforms as part of a conspiracy, he said, adding: “The big difference between past history and where we are now is that China has done well without those companies.”

When asked in recent years about tightening restrictions on US tech companies, the Indian government has said that it welcomes US companies, but that they must follow Indian regulations. Officials have said the government wants to protect small Indian businesses, secure user data, and make room for India’s own tech companies to grow.

Write to Jeff Horwitz at [email protected] and Newley Purnell at [email protected]

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