Akash Banerjee isn’t sure whether he’s allowed to talk about the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question on his YouTube channel. The documentary examines Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in deadly riots in the West Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, and the government has worked hard to keep Indians from watching it. Screenings at universities have been banned; in one case, students said authorities shut off electricity and the internet to stop it being shown, and clips of the documentary itself have been removed from Twitter and YouTube after the Indian government cited controversial emergency powers.
“The fact is that emergency powers are for something which is a very serious grave security implication that threatens the sovereignty of the nation, the peace of the nation,” says Banerjee, a seasoned journalist who runs The Deshbhakt (“the patriot”), a satirical YouTube channel covering politics and international affairs. Using that, the government has banned a documentary that talks about “something that happened years ago.”
This has left Banerjee, whose channel has nearly 3 million regular viewers, uncertain about where the red lines are. “I don’t know if I make a video on the BBC documentary, can the government pull that off, also citing emergency powers?” Banerjee says. For the time being, he’s self-censoring, holding off on posting anything about a drama that has gripped Indian politics for weeks.
Banerjee’s reluctance to address the controversy reflects the chilling effect of the Indian government’s multidimensional squeeze on the internet. Over the past few years, the administration has handed itself new powers that tighten controls over online content, allowing authorities to legally intercept messages, break encryption, and shut down telecoms networks during moments of political turmoil. In 2021 alone, the government resorted to internet blackouts more than 100 times. Over the past 10 months, the administration has banned over 200 YouTube channels, accusing them of spreading disinformation or threatening national security.
Over the next few months, the government will add yet more legislation that will likely expand its powers. Lawyers, digital rights activists, and journalists say this amounts to an attempt to reshape the Indian internet, creating a less free, less pluralistic space for the country’s 800 million users. It’s a move that could have profound consequences beyond India’s borders, they say, forcing changes at Big Tech companies and setting norms and precedents for how the internet is governed.
“There appear to be continuing attempts to strengthen the government’s control over the digital space—whether to censor content or to shut down the internet,” says Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific policy counsel at Access Now. These proposals “empower the executive to issue rules on a broad range of issues, which could be used to solidify unilateral power.”
The Indian government’s Big Tech battle began with a dispute over farm laws. In late 2020 and early 2021, tens of thousands of farmers marched on Delhi to protest proposed agricultural reforms (which were repealed by the end of 2021). The movement was mirrored online, with farmers and unions using social media platforms—including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—to galvanize support. On Twitter, popular accounts, like that of global music star Rihanna, expressed solidarity with the protesters. Then-CEO Jack Dorsey liked some celebrity posts supporting the farmers.
As the protests swelled, the government asked Twitter to take down accounts that it said were spreading misinformation and issued several legal notices demanding that hundreds of accounts be disabled. Twitter complied in some cases but refused to take action against accounts that belonged to media, journalists, activists, and politicians. “To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law,” Twitter wrote in a blog post.
Around the same time, in February 2021 the government announced the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, a set of laws governing tech platforms. The 2021 IT Rules included a requirement that social media companies appoint three Indian residents as full-time executives. This has been called a “hostage-taking” law designed to ensure that someone local can be held accountable in the event of a dispute. Platforms were given three months to comply and told they would otherwise risk losing their status as intermediaries, rather than publishers of information.
“Almost everyone in the industry, at least in India, thought that the government [would] not go ahead with the three-month deadline,” one person with knowledge of internal discussions within a Western social media platform told WIRED. They spoke anonymously, as they aren’t allowed to talk to the media.
The changes to the rules were so fundamental that the tech platforms expected to get more time. “There also wasn’t enough consultation, and no one in the industry was prepared to make such a fundamental shift in their India operations,” the person said.
But as the deadline inched closer, the government made it clear that it wouldn’t budge. Google and Meta rushed to comply, but Twitter missed the deadline, according to the government, which said the company temporarily lost its intermediary status, making it briefly liable for the content posted on its platform. At least two cases related to content posted on Twitter during that period were filed against Twitter’s India head, Manish Maheshwari, and a lawyer filed a complaint against the company for “spreading communal hatred.”
“You operate in India, you make money in India, you have good ad revenue in India, but if you take the position that I will only be governed by laws of America … This is plainly not acceptable,” India’s IT minister warned at the time.
Twitter eventually hired the required three directors, and the government said the platform’s intermediary status had been restored. The company later released a transparency report showing that the Indian government had issued nearly 4,000 takedown requests to Twitter between July and December 2021. In May 2021, police raided Twitter’s offices in Delhi and Gurgaon after the company applied a “manipulated media” label to a tweet by a politician from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The government also picked a fight with Meta. The new rules allow the authorities to demand that messaging platforms identify the originator of any message when asked—something that is incompatible with WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption. WhatsApp sued the government to challenge the law. The case is still pending.
Social media platforms have dismissed some of the other provisions in the new rules as impractical. One mandates that intermediaries respond to user complaints within 24 hours and resolve them in the next 15 days; it also asks social media platforms to take down certain “contentious” content within 72 hours of reporting. Malicious mass reporting of content is already a common tactic in India.
“If 1,000 people gang up—which is not uncommon in the world of social media—and if they mass-email me, then I will be left with nothing else but to write back replies,” Banerjee says. “If it comes into play, it will be the death knell of many social media channels, especially the smaller ones.”
While the government has said that the 2021 IT Rules were designed to “empower ordinary users of social media” and stop the circulation of dangerous content and financial fraud, Banerjee believes the crackdown is more about reasserting control over the media. Over the past few years, there has been a proliferation of online media, with high-profile journalists setting themselves up as independents and more of the national conversation now happening on social media. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite their vocal opposition to the rules, Big Tech companies have limited room to maneuvre. India has around 330 million Facebook users, more than 300 million Instagram users, and close to 25 million Twitter users. It is a huge source of growth and revenue. Meta’s ad revenue in India was more than $2 billion in the year ending 2022.
Indian policymakers know that this scale gives them a considerable amount of sway. And they have banned a major social media platform before. In June 2020, the government ordered networks in India to block TikTok, along with 58 other Chinese-owned apps, after a border standoff. India was TikTok’s largest international market at the time.
“India being such a huge market, nobody wants to affect their business, whether it’s Twitter or Meta,” says Salman Waris, an international technology lawyer and a partner at law firm TechLegis. “They may try to resist in some way on the face of it, but in the background they will end up cooperating, and that is obviously going to dent free speech, both in the country and internationally as well.”
India could set a precedent, Waris says, that other governments could use to “further arm-twist these Big Tech companies.”
Over the next few months, the Indian government will release a draft of the Digital India Act. Although the content hasn’t yet been revealed, news reports say it will attempt to regulate the entire digital world—from social media to the metaverse and OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon—and include provisions on misinformation and online safety for women and children.
As a forerunner to the new law, in January the government proposed an addition to its 2021 IT Rules that would compel platforms to take down any content deemed “fake” by the fact-checking unit of the Press Information Bureau, a government agency that handles press relations. The amendment is currently on hold for consultations with civil society, but if these rules come into play, experts say the government could become the “ultimate authority” on what stays online and what doesn’t.
There are justifiable reasons for wanting to regulate online spaces in India, where hate speech against minority groups and women has proliferated. And the government has a stated ambition to drive growth in Indian tech companies, rather than relying on US giants to supply huge parts of the country’s digital infrastructure. But the way the government is approaching regulation suggests a different motive.
“These are two things that sort of play together—elements of growth and national security,” said Prateek Waghre, policy director at Internet Freedom Foundation. “But a side effect or consequence of this, or what you’re also seeing in subsequent drafts in the rules that are being notified, is also an increase in centralization of authority.”
For Banerjee, there are small and big signs that the public square in India is being constrained by those with power and influence.
In January, another scandal rocked the Indian establishment. The activist short-seller Hindenburg published a report on the industrial conglomerate Adani Group, accusing the company of accounting fraud and stock market manipulation. More than $110 billion has been wiped off the Adani Group’s stock market valuation since the report. The company has denied the allegations and responded using nationalistic language, calling the report a “calculated attack” on India and its growth story. Days after the report came out, a video about Adani Group founder Gautam Adani that Banerjee had posted four months before was suddenly targeted by YouTube on the grounds of “strong profanity”—presumably following a user’s complaints.
“I had called him [Adani] an oligarch,” said Banerjee. “But the video was demonetized, saying it has profanity. Is oligarch a profanity? Then I don’t know.”
Although he’s still posting and has yet to face any serious legal problems, Banerjee says he’s already making preparations for that possibility.
“Any social media person, anyone who is willing to do commentary, I always say they have to have two very good things,” he says. “A good chartered accountant and a good lawyer.”