Indian consumers check their mobile telephones at a free Wi-Fi Internet zone.   Photo: AFP/ Indranil Mukherjee
Indian consumers check their mobile phones in a free Wi-Fi zone. Photo: AFP / Indranil Mukherjee

The world’s largest democracy has an Internet problem. More specifically, it has a problem with censorship on the Internet.

While all eyes have been trained on the far-reaching powers of Silicon Valley Internet giants, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is steadily curbing basic Internet freedoms for India’s more than 1 billion citizens – and delivering a salutary warning to the rest of the world that the connections afforded by digital technology are not to be taken for granted.

The latest salvo in India’s increasing digital authoritarianism is the prospective crackdown on cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. A bill is soon to go before Parliament proposing to make trading, mining, issuing, transferring or possessing cryptocurrency a criminal offense. Analysts believe the bill will pass into law, which means India would have some of the strictest cryptocurrency laws in the world.

Even China, which prohibits trade in crypto-coins, has not criminalized owning them. If and when the bill passes, Indian citizens will have six months to liquidate their holding or face punishment that could include up to 10 years in jail. 

The cryptocurrency bill is only one element in a flurry of government activity over the past year. With India attracting more investment from foreign technology companies, the government is moving forward with a bill that forces companies to share data with the country or else shut up shop. 

Such legislation has been in the works for years, but the international social-media attention garnered by Indian farmers protesting against three agriculture laws has made passage more likely. In February, New Delhi tried to get posts related to the farmers’ protest removed from Twitter. 

The new legislation is designed to give the government more control over WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging platform that is the lifeblood of the Indian Internet, by forcing its owner, Facebook, to share critical information, such as who the “first originator” of a message is. India is not the first country to try this, but it is the first to show willingness to turn words into action. 

Former president Donald Trump talked a great deal about the US banning TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video platform, but he never actually managed to do it. India did, however, last June.

As tensions rose on the border with China, India banned not only TikTok but 58 other Chinese applications, too. New Delhi’s demands regarding privacy and security used much the same language as the prospective legislation that is now aimed at Western companies. 

Meanwhile, foreign companies are still investing in India’s manufacturing sector. Apple, for example, started making smartphones in India in 2017 and the company recently announced plans to move more manufacturing for its iPhone 12 to India to consolidate its position in the lucrative smartphone market there.

If iPhones are being manufactured in India, it will give the government more control over what it will allow in the domestic smartphone market. 

India is hardly alone in insisting on certain conditions from technology companies operating within its borders. No one is disputing the right of sovereign nations to enact laws deemed to be in their national interest. However, the nature of the laws and the impact they exert does matter in free and democratic societies.

The growth, behavior and power of technology companies are the subject of wide-ranging discussions in Europe and the United States. This is vital for the sustainable development of technology with the right balance between innovation and personal security. 

That’s one reason it is so important to monitor the developments in India. As the world’s largest democracy and a key emerging market, how India approaches the open Internet and the rights of individuals to use technology as they see fit will have profound knock-on effects around the world.

Moreover, recent events have demonstrated that tech companies don’t necessarily operate with the consumer in mind.

Apple has built one of the world’s most valuable brands on its commitment to user privacy (and clean designs). Yet the creation of strict Internet censorship laws, the banning of applications like TikTok and the imminent banning of cryptocurrencies in India have not discouraged Apple from moving key parts of its manufacturing business there. 

Digital-rights activists and open-Internet advocates were horrified when Trump threatened to ban TikTok and restrict other areas of the American Internet. Yet the response to India’s decision to follow through where Trump failed has been relative silence.

If New Delhi continues to press ahead with the new laws, the consequences are potentially chilling and will go far beyond India’s borders. It will be easier for other countries to follow India’s lead and technology companies will think twice about the risks involved in accessing those vast markets.

This is how the Internet might crumble. 

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Joseph Dana is the senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact.