This week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will give a keynote address at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Sydney Dialogue, along with Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The dialogue is billed as a “world-first summit for emerging, critical and cyber technologies”.
Australia is deepening trade and investment ties with India, and technology has emerged as a key element in their growing bilateral and multilateral cooperation. Modi will describe how India’s technology industry is solving global problems.
His administration has called his flagship program Digital India – transforming India into an empowered digital economy with an emphasis on better delivery of government services – as one of India’s biggest success stories.
However, what the audience will not hear is how the Modi government has been using technology since it came to power in 2014 to curtail rights at home as part of an escalating crackdown on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
Even as his government promotes a more digitally connected India, it shuts down the internet more than any other country in the world, increasingly to silence peaceful protests and criticism of the government. This has not only denied millions of people their fundamental rights, but has also affected businesses and cost the Indian economy billions of dollars in losses.
As part of its playbook to quell dissent and gain greater control over online content, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Hindu nationalist government enacted new internet rules targeting social media companies, digital news services and curated video streaming sites that will most likely have global consequences. These rules include overbroad restrictions on content, encourage self-censorship and require traceability of information that compromise end-to-end encryption on platforms such as WhatsApp or Signal.
The rules also require social media companies with more than 5 million registered users in India – which pretty much means all the major internet companies – to appoint staff in-country. With more of their personnel living in India, where they could face criminal liability and prosecution, companies will also find it difficult to resist arbitrary and disproportionate government orders to take down content or hand over data on users.
In February, even before the rules came into force, the government threatened to punish Twitter’s India-based employees with fines and jail terms after Twitter shut down some, but not all, accounts ordered by the Indian authorities, that were critical of the government’s handling of the farmers’ protests.