Chinese-style government internet laws could expose citizens to more surveillance

One of the laws by which India governs its communications industry dates back to 1885 – when Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone was not even ten years old. While India’s colonial-era Telegraph Act is hopelessly anachronistic, its proposed replacement may also be problematic: the telecommunications bill wants to retain sweeping state surveillance powers and apply them even to encrypted internet messages. .

If the bill passes in its current form, citizens of the world’s largest democracy will lose another corner of what is already a rapidly shrinking space for privacy and free speech. Activists, dissidents and whistleblowers will be particularly at risk; The pressure will rely on services such as Meta Platforms Inc.’s WhatsApp, which has sued the Indian government for demanding it crack end-to-end encryption, to come into line.

Eventually, India will come one step closer to a Chinese-style controlled Internet.

The planned telecommunications law is actually about the Internet. It seeks to bend the industry to the government’s will by imposing a licensing requirement on everything from Gmail to FaceTime and Skype. Licensed services will be required to “unequivocally identify” their customers. Message senders must be identifiable in the same way as recipients. “These provisions essentially deprive the user of the right to remain anonymous,” said the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, a think tank. “Such a broad and excessive requirement, in the absence of data protection law, does not prioritize user security.”

Just last month, the Indian government scrapped a personal data protection bill that had been in the works for five years and decided to replace it with “a comprehensive legal framework”. According to the tenor of the telecommunications bill, it is unrealistic to expect India to lean towards European-style privacy safeguards. Both the public and private sectors are happy to see everything from banking services to state subsidies tied to a controversial national biometric ID repository. Monitoring the daily lives of 1.4 billion Indians with databases – to extract profit or wield power – is a leaf straight from Beijing’s playbook.

Given a general lack of awareness of digital harm, adapting the model to local conditions is not difficult. Recently, 50 million Indians geotagged their homes and uploaded their photos along with their phone numbers on a Culture Ministry website after Prime Minister Narendra Modi told them that was how they should celebrate the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. Only some security researchers found the idea outrageous.

On the other hand, there were howls of protest when Razorpay, a Bengaluru-based online payment gateway, was recently forced by police to release confidential user data which could be used by authorities to harassing contributors to Alt News, a fact-checking organization. website that finds itself increasingly at odds with the Hindu right-wing Modi government. As a regulated financial services provider, Razorpay had no choice. Now, the same threat of a fine – or loss of the right to operate – could be brought to bear on technology service companies.

When it comes to wanting to control the global web, India is already something of a global leader: there have been more than 660 cases since 2012 where mobile or landline internet has been cut off in part of the country. or the other, according to the Software Freedom Law Center, an advocacy group. The telecommunications bill is simply intended to formalize this arbitrary power, which is now used by various state governments, not only to stop the spread of misinformation during riots, but also to prevent students from cheating on exams.

This can hardly be the right model for a rapidly modernizing economy where the private sector aspires to become the global leader in digital businesses ranging from retail to finance and entertainment. But having seen and used the power of social media to win elections, the Modi government is unlikely to adopt a hands-off approach – not when the Chinese model of authoritarian control already exists.

Commercial interests will support what works for them. Twitter Inc., which is suing the government for what it calls “arbitrary” and “disproportionate” instructions to block handles or remove content, won’t want its fate in the country hanging on a license that Twitter Inc. he can lose at any time. But in sectors like social media, messaging and e-commerce, new local players will be rushing to support New Delhi. They will proclaim a nationalist motivation, although in reality they will simply want India to get behind a Chinese-style firewall so they can become its Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd.

In this confusing interconnection of power and profit, the voice of the consumer and citizen, whose interests are best served by a free and open Internet, will struggle to be heard.

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