Future Tense

Silicon Valley Thought India Was Its Future. Now Everything Has Changed.

Modi holds up one hand with the palm facing him from behind a podium with microphones.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives an addresses in Sivasagar district of India’s Assam state on Jan. 23. Biju Boro/AFP via Getty Images

On June 3, Google had to apologize to the Indian state of Karnataka for search results that prominently listed the state’s primary tongue, Kannada, as the “ugliest language in India.” As the search engine moved to fix the issue, the state’s minister for forest, Kannada, and culture, Arvind Limbavali, threatened legal action. Later that very week, Limbavali demanded that Amazon’s Canada outpost apologize after it listed a bikini for sale that featured Karnataka’s flag. When Amazon did not respond, Limbavali stated he’d take legal action against the e-commerce platform as well.

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These incidents occurred at a terrible time for Google and Amazon. Throughout this year, India’s ultraconservative government has consistently threatened major Big Tech at a level it hadn’t dared before.

On Feb. 1, in response to massive farmers protests as well as a Republic Day anti-government and anti-police rally that had turned violent, the administration asked Twitter to remove 1,100 accounts and posts it claimed were spreading misinformation. Twitter initially resisted, only obscuring some accounts from view—until its India-based employees were threatened with prison time. After that, it permanently banned more than 500 accounts and obscured others from Indians’ view. Shortly after, the government took matters into its own hands and shut down internet access in areas where protesting farmers were gathering.

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Later that month, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology implemented new guidelines for social and digital media companies, forcing them to 1) disclose the identities of senders of tweets and even anonymous, encrypted messages upon government request; 2) disclose details about how and where certain posts and videos are published; and 3) hire Indian residents to special positions to ensure the companies stay in contact with law enforcement agencies, redress grievances, and comply with new rules. As CNN reported, the government claimed the new regulations would “help protect national security, maintain public order and reduce crime,” though “tech companies say the rules are inconsistent with democratic principles.”

The ministry gave “major” social platforms—defined as networks with more than 5 million regular users—a three-month timeline, ending May 25, to follow these orders or risk being completely banned from India. In the meantime, social media companies appeared to mostly cooperate with India: In late April, the country’s government asked Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to take down more than 100 posts—52 of them on Twitter—from politicians, actors, and other prominent figures that bashed the administration’s shoddy pandemic response. Twitter in turn restricted the tweets so Indian users only could not view them. Facebook hid posts containing the hashtag #ResignModi—referring to India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi—within India before restoring them in the course of a few hours. (A Facebook spokesman told BuzzFeed News that “we temporarily blocked this hashtag by mistake, not because the Indian government asked us to.”) But Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube each took down posts that inveighed against the Modi administration, according to multiple reports. Furthermore, BloombergQuint reported that, as Indians turned to social media to beg one another for help in the midst of a COVID catastrophe, groups providing resources on messaging apps like Telegram, WhatsApp, and Discord were threatened by police and subsequently disbanded.

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A month later, as the deadline for the IT ministry guidelines loomed, more clashes erupted. Starting May 21, Twitter started attaching a “manipulated media” label—which denotes, per the company, tweets containing “deceptively altered” media that has the potential for harm—to tweets by politicians from India’s ruling, reactionary Bharatiya Janata Party that claimed members of the opposition Congress Party had created a “toolkit” for undermining the government’s COVID response. (An Indian fact-checking website found that the document BJP officials were sharing to bolster this claim was forged.) India complained to Twitter that the label was applied “prejudicially,” asked the site to remove the labels (which it still has not done), and also requested that it take down posts referring to the so-called Indian variant of the coronavirus. When the platform didn’t act on either, police raided Twitter India’s offices in New Delhi and Gurugram (the latter of whose outposts were permanently closed) in order to formally serve notice of the government’s inquiry into the “manipulated media” posts.

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The day after the raids was May 25—the deadline for tech companies’ compliance with the new Indian rules. By that time, no platforms besides the India-based Twitter competitor Koo had followed the orders. Yet there was no shutdown; in fact, the next day, WhatsApp sued the Indian government in the Delhi High Court in order to block enforcement of the new rules. (The IT ministry called the suit “unfortunate.”) The same day, Google and Facebook (which owns WhatsApp) declared their intent to work toward compliance, even as they claimed to be discussing further concerns about the rules with India’s government. On May 27, Twitter’s Global Public Policy team stated the website would “strive to comply with applicable law in India”—but also called out “recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve,” decried the police raids as “intimidation tactics,” and proclaimed the platform would “advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation.”

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By June 1, India had given Twitter another three weeks to full comply with its guidelines. And it appeared, by this week, that Twitter was steadily giving in to government demands. TechCrunch reported Monday that per the government’s request, the social network had obscured from Indian view four accounts that had criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the government also sent Twitter a letter offering a “final warning” this week, according to British tech outlet the Register, demanding it follow the rules after it was revealed that some of the officials appointed by Twitter in the interest of rules compliance were in fact not based in the company’s Indian offices.

Media censorship was commonplace in India decades before the internet reached its borders, and social media censorship predates Narendra Modi’s rule. Yet both have ramped up significantly since the demagogue was elected prime minister in 2014. You can trace this in part through regional and local internet shutdown rates: India’s Software Freedom Law Center, which keeps track of these shutdowns, shows that the country saw only three internet shutdowns in 2012, five in 2013, and six in 2014. Then they surged: 14 in 2015, 31 in 2016, 79 in 2017, 134 in 2018. The number dropped to 106 in 2019 but rose again to 129 in 2020. Twitter’s transparency unit also has an eye-popping chart showing that the number of Indian government requests for information from Twitter increased exponentially over the past decade, from just 19 total requests in 2012–13 to 2,613 requests in just the first half of 2020.

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It once made obvious business sense for Big Tech to focus on India. When digital companies expanded to international audiences throughout the globalizing 2000s, they found a perfect receptor in the Asian subcontinent: an increasingly online, billion-strong, newly capitalist nation ready to welcome foreign business, export its own knowledgeable tech workers to other nations, and join virtual forums to connect with the world and complement South Asia’s historic traditions of argument, democracy, and neighborly goodwill.

Modi, who was hailed upon his first election as “India’s first social media prime minister” for his campaign team’s digital savvy, leveraged this social media knowhow to become a darling of Silicon Valley in ways previous Indian leaders never did. His “Digital India” campaign (whose website, incidentally, has pretty horrid design) was praised by various major tech CEOs for its goal of turning India into a utopia of tech innovation; the prime minister visited California-based corporations and held both public and private events with executives from Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Tesla; investors went gaga over India’s domestic startups. The founding director for Twitter India joined the company in 2012 with hopes that the platform would help strengthen democracy in the country. It once may have seemed that India, which already had its own “Silicon Valley” for tech innovation within the city of Bangalore, would become both one of the primary drivers and biggest beneficiaries of an interconnected world.

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But this quickly disintegrated, and the bargain tech execs drove in embracing an already-notorious figure like Modi became much harder. In 2016, India blocked Facebook’s “Free Basics” initiative, an attempt by the company to offer free internet access through a network of Facebook-approved sites, out of concern that the program would have created unfair tiers for internet access; that same year, Amazon found itself disfavored by the Indian government as it attempted to puncture the subcontinent’s e-commerce market and compete with native Indian companies in the sector.

Far more worrying were the accounts of social impact. Again in 2016, whistleblowers from 2014 BJP campaigns came out publicly about the kind of work they reportedly did for the party’s “IT cells”—namely, coordinated efforts to target and troll BJP opponents across various social platforms, spread misinformation, and counter and shut down criticisms of Modi and his ideological brethren. More and more stories were reported of calls for mob violence and rampant misinformation spreading throughout WhatsApp, which continued throughout the pivotal 2019 election that Modi and the BJP won in a sweep. That year, as China’s TikTok became megapopular within India, a local court banned the app for propagating “illicit” content. Soon after, the ban was reversed, only to be reinstated by the national government in summer 2020 in retaliation against China following heated border clashes.

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It’s worth noting, as I wrote when India’s second (and still-in-effect) TikTok ban came into play, that the app had become an easy-to-use arena for conscientious citizens to counter mainstream media censorship, spread the word about protests, and give voice to Indians of different castes, gender and sexual identifications, and ethnicities, many of whom found themselves under attack from the BJP’s Hindu nationalist government. Speaking of that very administration: In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that India’s then–Facebook head opposed applying the company’s hate speech rules to BJP politicians who’d spouted Islamophobic rhetoric online. And the New York Times reported that wealthy Indian workers who emigrated to the U.S. to work for Silicon Valley firms often perpetrated the same caste-discrimination systems that are so rampant in Hindu-fundamentalist regions of India.

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No major Big Tech company has yet elected to leave or boycott India in response to this increasing sparring—in fact, some are still investing billions in the nation. But it’s perhaps only a matter of time before differences become too stark to ignore. Facebook employees, according to the Times, are frustrated with the company over its handling of India’s political situation. Twitter’s India employees remain worried for their lives—and India is pushing its own Twitter-like app, Koo, in order to draw its populace away from the American platform and its rules. (As tech writer Pranav Dixit has reported, Koo, which is embraced and used frequently by BJP politicians, is saturated with hate speech.) This is in line with India’s attempts to create its own domestic TikTok competitors and get Indians on board with homegrown apps that notably answer only to the Indian government, and no other country or authority.

The India that Silicon Valley once so loved has long given way to a different one: an increasingly authoritarian regime that wants even tighter control over information dissemination. It’s an India that’s not only willing to bully the very companies it once welcomed in order to firm up its grip, but also one that’s attempting to craft its own parallel social mediasphere as a bargaining chip to Silicon Valley: Either you play by our rules, or we don’t need you.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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