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Cannot allow Big Tech to unplug India from the internet: Rajeev Chandrasekhar

Actions by major tech companies in the Russia-Ukraine conflict is serving as a wake-up call.

It’s not a good thing for any company or country to have the power to unplug India from the internet, Minister of State for IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar told The Hindu in an interview on April 26. “We are going to have a trillion-dollar digital economy in a few years, and a large number of businesses will be on the Indian Internet, so the Internet becomes an important economic component of our country. So if anybody has the power to unplug the Internet, it’s not a good thing. We don’t like the idea that any country should be, could be, must be, can be, vulnerable to that kind of conduct – politically directed conduct, or any blackmail directed conduct,” Chandrasekhar said.

Chandrasekhar made these comments in response to a question on how India should react after witnessing the role and influence of Big Tech in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Most major companies and platforms have stopped serving Russian users either due to sanctions imposed by western countries or on their own. For example, major social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube imposed curbs on Russian state-controlled media and on Russian advertisements, companies like Microsoft and Apple stopped selling their products, and payment companies like Mastercard and Visa stopped offering their services.

“We have to ensure that we cannot be unplugged; intermediaries will have to play by the rules and laws of India. The weaponisation of the Internet, or “splinternet,” is something we need to plan not being vulnerable to. It is an objective for us,” Chandrasekhar said.

Are we staring at new regulations targeted at international companies?

Back when the Russian–Ukraine conflict began, we wrote that the effect of the measures taken by major social media platforms and tech companies is not limited to two countries and will have significant implications for other countries as well. Chandrasekhar’s comments confirm this as it indicates that India will introduce regulations that make it harder for international companies to abruptly stop serving Indian users. In the same interview, Chandrasekhar also said that the government will release a draft version of the proposed legislative framework to replace the Information Technology Act, 2000, as early as next month. This proposed legislation might contain some of the regulations targeted at international companies.

Chandrasekhar also suggested that India will work with other countries to come to multilateral agreements. “Increasingly bilateral or multilateral arrangements between countries will have to evolve in a way that nothing can be done in isolation from other countries. A conversation has already started on these issues, on issues that technology intermediaries cannot be left unregulated, also to dispel the belief that the Internet has no boundaries,” he said.

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Why do the developments in the Russia–Ukraine conflict have implications for other countries?

  • Many of the measures announced are unprecedented and indicate what social media platforms are capable of doing and the power they hold in public discourse. This raises questions about how far platforms can and will go when it comes to issues in other countries.
  • The measures taken by the various platforms can force countries to come up with new regulations to safeguard themselves from global platforms in the future. For example, when Twitter de-platformed Donald Trump in early 2021, Indian MP Tejaswi Surya called for a review of how internet intermediaries are regulated saying: “If they can do this to POTUS, they can do this to anyone.” Governments around the world are likely to think along similar lines in the aftermath of the Russian invasion.
  • Foreign governments might start encouraging local alternatives to global platforms because of the control they have over these platforms. This will not only deprive consumers of choice and quality but could lead to a splintering of the global internet.
  • Now that various platforms have shown that they can act proactively and in a timely fashion to take down harmful content, the same might be asked of them by other governments when it comes to their countries. For example, according to India’s IT Rules, social media platforms must proactively use automated tools to remove harmful content including content that the government has deemed illegal in the past, but platforms have refused by citing the technical challenges and the challenge to free speech this poses. But if platforms are capable of engaging in proactive measures elsewhere, why not in India, the government can ask. 

We also explored these implications in greater depth in our Members Call on this subject, which you can watch here.

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