Future Tense

As American Tech Firms Move to India, Many Choose to Self-Censor

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos poses on a lorry in Bangalore.  

Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

Among big American tech companies, the race for India is on. With 355 million internet users (and rapidly growing) up for grabs, it’s no surprise that firms like Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon are investing billions of dollars to make inroads in the world’s largest democracy.

But as they do, they’re running up against a particular conundrum: how to cater to the country’s cosmopolitan consumers without offending its more conservative classes, including the right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a surprising number of cases, companies are erring on the side of censorship—for instance, by blocking images of dead cows and ads for anti-nationalist home goods.

As Buzzfeed News reporter Pranav Dixit noted in his article, American tech companies like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix are pre-emptively censoring their content in a bid to avoid backlash from the Indian government and conservative Hindu circles. Dixit also noted that Tinder had followed the trend with its tone-deaf advertisment for users in India.

India’s approach to internet governance isn’t in the same league as the heavy-handed censorship of neighbor and rival power China though, which has historically blocked popular websites including Google, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook through its “Great Firewall.” India represents a softer form of sanitization. By law, the nation offers a constitutional protection of free speech and limits the government’s ability to crack down on online content. But that doesn’t mean the internet has become a free-for-all. For example, India frequently leads the world in government requests to Facebook for account data and for content removal (mostly related to local laws against anti-religious or hate speech). Many companies also choose to pre-emptively clean up content to appease the government and avoid backlash from of India’s culturally conservative classes.

As noted in a post by the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi on Legally India, the practice of self-censorship is particularly widespread among international video streaming services. The authors suggest that the platforms may be “trying to find their place in the Indian market without drawing attention for the wrong reasons.”

This May, Netflix released a censored form of the Hindi dramedy Angry Indian Goddesses for viewers in India, even though it made an uncensored cut available for foreign audiences in April. According to Indian digital news site MediaNama, it seems that the streaming service released the version of the film—which covers stigmatized issues like homosexuality, rape, and caste—that had been approved for theatrical release by the India’s Central Board of Film Certification. But that body doesn’t have jurisdiction over online content from platforms like Netflix and recently implied it has no intention of regulating online content in the foreseeable future.

Instead, it appears Netflix’s decision was a case of self-censorship. According to the film’s production company and director, the American company requested the edited version of the movie first, apparently preferring to stream the version that cut references to the Indian government, blurred an image of an Indian goddess, and cut out dialogue referring to an “Indian figure,” the holy Hindu bovine “cow,” and, for unknown reasons, the words “guitar” and “lunch.”

“Business is Business. They would rather censor stuff and stay on the good graces of the government of India than appease users and risk controversy,” wrote one Reddit user in a discussion about the streaming service’s seemingly arbitrary censorship decisions in the country.

After getting complaints from confused India-based viewers, Netflix released an uncut version of the movie in June.

Amazon Prime Video also routinely eliminates nudity and other inappropriate content from its vast streaming catalog. Since its 2016 launch in India, many TV shows and films available in the region have been edited to the point where plots elude human comprehension. Among others, Amazon heavily cut an episode of Jeremy Clarkson’s car show The Grand Tour that featured the host driving a car out of animal carcasses. Despite complaints, Amazon defended the move to Mashable India, saying it wanted to “keep Indian cultural sensitivities in mind.” Considering the recent episodes of violence allegedly tied to beef consumption, Amazon may have thought it incendiary to show the dead body of an animal so highly revered in Hindu circles.

Amazon has also had to mind its online merchandise. The everything store came under fire in January for selling doormats with the Indian national flag design. (In India and other South Asian countries, feet on such a symbol would be considered an insult.) Upon learning of the product, India’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted, “Amazon must tender unconditional apology. They must withdraw all products insulting our national flag immediately.” In a subsequent tweet, she threatened to withhold and rescind visas from Amazon employees if action was not taken quickly. The company swiftly complied.

Tinder, too, hasn’t been immune. The hookup app took criticism earlier this year after releasing a seemingly tone-deaf video ad for potential Indian users, which featured a conservative mother surprisingly approve of her daughter’s date, saying, “From my side, there is a right swipe for this.”

Some criticized what they saw as a regressive message at odds with the app’s reputation for facilitating casual sex. Others pointed out how not OK their parents would be with them meeting up with strangers in a culture where open dating has traditionally been taboo.

“If ma knew her daughter is on a hang-and-maybe-bang app, she’d kick me outta the house, not sweetly send me off to drunk-make out with a rando,” one user told BuzzFeed India.

When Tinder India CEO Taru Kapoor was asked about the video by Huffington Post India, she admitted the ad might not have been perfectly executed. But, she said, it was part of a larger effort the company would continue to make to show that online dating could appeal to a broad range of Indian users. Although differing from Amazon Prime Video and Netflix’s self-censorship, the advertisement tied into a broader trend of appealing to more conservative audiences.

As huge profit margins and success in the Indian markets are already demonstrating, that may not be an unwise business decision.