India’s government has threatened to jail employees of Facebook Inc., FB 2.58% its WhatsApp unit and Twitter Inc. TWTR 0.30% as it seeks to quash political protests and gain far-reaching powers over discourse on foreign-owned tech platforms, people familiar with the warnings say.
The warnings are in direct response to the tech companies’ reluctance to comply with data and takedown requests from the government 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 the companies don’t comply, according to some of the people.
The threats mark an escalation of India’s efforts to pressure U.S. tech companies at a moment when those companies are looking to the world’s second-most-populous nation for growth in the coming years.
Some of the government’s requests for data involve WhatsApp, which is hugely popular in India and promises users encrypted communication, unable to be read by outside parties.
A WhatsApp spokesman 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 spokesman said the company “responds to government requests for data 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 spokesman said, adding: “Threats to these principles are on the rise around the world, which is of deep concern.”
A spokeswoman for India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology didn’t respond to requests for comment.
India has been making new rules that grant its leaders power over online discourse to a degree unmatched elsewhere among open societies, legal analysts say.
The rules require the tech companies to appoint executives who are resident in India to deal with government requests, including a contact person for “24×7 coordination with law-enforcement agencies and officers to ensure compliance” with orders, the rules say.
The rules would also compel companies to remove content that undermines national security, public order and “decency or morality.”
Some companies, such as WhatsApp, must also help identify the originator of messages. A government representative said the rules would require platforms to track and store records of specific messages as they traveled among users.
“In a way, you will get to know if a message is becoming viral or not,” said Rakesh Maheshwari, the director of cyber law at India’s IT ministry, in a Zoom forum hosted by an Indian internet trade association on Thursday.
Greg Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology think tank 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 app’s longtime user benefits.
“One large country, by adopting and enforcing these rules, could make it so that large messaging platforms either pull out or don’t offer encrypted services all over the world,” Mr. Nojeim said.
Legal observers say the rules don’t provide a clear legal way to challenge requests to take down content or provide user data. Under India’s legal system, such requests don’t require prior approval by a court.
Beyond the risk of arrests, noncompliance would also threaten the tech companies’ future in a market of more than 1.3 billion people that, since they are locked out of China, is key to their global growth.
Facebook and WhatsApp have more users in India than in any other country. Facebook said last year that 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 crucial to its expansion as growth slows in more developed countries.
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has already shown it is willing to shut out popular social-media platforms, last year banning TikTok, which had a far larger user base than Twitter, amid tensions with China.
Twitter in recent weeks blocked, unblocked and then blocked again hundreds of accounts in India for posting material that the Indian government deemed inflammatory. The company has said it refused to take down other accounts despite the government’s orders.
According to the most recent statistics made public by Google, Facebook and Twitter, the companies regularly reject Indian takedown and user-data requests. Facebook platforms complied with half of the government’s orders for user data, Google with 58% and Twitter with 1%, numbers well below the companies’ world-wide averages. Resistance to future requests could put them in breach of the law.
The Indian government appears ready for a fight. The Delhi Police, who report to the country’s Home Ministry, have arrested Indians alleged to have collaborated with foreigners through Zoom, WhatsApp and Google documents on a social-media activism “tool kit” in support of the protesting farmers. The police said that the creation and promotion of the tipsheet amounted to sedition.
All three companies declined to comment on government data requests related to the incident. News Corp, owner of Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co., has a commercial agreement to supply news through Facebook. Dow Jones has a commercial agreement to supply video content through Twitter.
Tech Companies in India
A judge released one of the activists on bail last month, attributing the charges against her to “the wounded vanity of the government.” The arrests nonetheless 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 tool kit.
“They are sending signals to anyone who would dare organize or communicate through these tools that ‘if you do it again, we’ll find you,’” Mr. Dhaliwal said.
The growing pressure has left tech companies in a bind, said Jason Pielemeier, policy director of the Global Network Initiative, a group focused on online human rights and privacy that is partially funded by tech companies.
“In a market the size of India, it’s hard to take the nuclear option, which is to say, ‘We’re not going to comply, and if you block us, we’ll call your bluff or accept the consequences,’” he said.
Mr. Pielemeier compared the Indian government demands regarding content, privacy and data access with those the Chinese government made before major internet platforms withdrew from the country in the aughts.
The Indian government has painted the platforms as being part of a conspiracy, he said, adding, “The big difference between the earlier history and where we are now is that China has done just fine without those companies.”
Asked in recent years about tightening restrictions on U.S. tech firms, the Indian government has said it welcomes American companies but that they must follow India’s regulations. Officials have said the government wants to protect small Indian businesses, secure user data and allow room for India’s own tech firms to grow.
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