New Delhi, India – It is a drama in development worthy of a Bollywood movie.
In February, Twitter removed hundreds of accounts posting about continued protests by farmers against three farm laws passed in India last year, only to restore some of them after a massive public backlash.
Twitter said the accounts were removed to comply with orders from the Indian government. But that was just the beginning of this year’s tensions between a US social media giant and the Indian government.
New Delhi authorities have passed new rules requiring, among other things, social media platforms to reveal the identities of people posting content, prompting protests from tech companies and free speech activists.
Indian police visited Twitter’s offices in May after it failed to comply with a request to remove a “manipulated media” tag that it had placed on the tweets of politicians belonging to the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And in late June, the head of Twitter in India was slapped with a police report on a map of India showing the politically sensitive region of Kashmir as a separate country, while a far-right group filed a police report on 30th. June claiming that Twitter promoted child pornography. on your platform.
It is not just Twitter that is being targeted. Facebook and Amazon have also found themselves butting heads with the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, clashes that underscore how a lack of formal cooperation can cause relations between an American tech giant and the Indian government to go completely derailed, possibly to the detriment of both of them.
India has 1.1 billion mobile phone subscribers and some 757 million Internet users, most of whom connect through their phones, according to the latest government data. That pool of leads is even more attractive given India’s burgeoning digital advertising market, which is expected to rise from $ 2.2 billion last year to $ 3.2 billion by the end of 2022, according to digital marketing firm Dentsu. India.
The Indian digital ecosystem, while still in an early stage, “is one of the most important markets out there,” said Anand Raghuraman, vice president of Asia Group, a strategic advisory firm. “Leading technology companies recognize this and that is why they continue to invest in India in a big way and we don’t see that changing anytime soon,” he said.
With such a vast opportunity, it’s easy to see how social media giants like Twitter and Facebook for streaming platforms Amazon and Netflix are willing to dance to at least some of New Delhi’s digital dictates. But global tech companies also know from experience that India’s tech policy landscape is prone to frequent change and is shaped by complex regulatory structures, Raghuraman warned.
“The real question is which is going to grow faster: India’s digital economy or the political barriers preventing access to it,” he said, adding that both countries must have a “digital dialogue” and an “honest conversation” to resolve. problems and make your decisions. relationship to the next level.
India will also benefit from more cordial relations with US tech giants, Rahguraman said, by helping New Delhi control neighboring China’s influence at home and abroad, including in the digital realm. It also anchors US tech companies and their deep pockets in India, helping to create jobs and drive innovation.
Building trust, cutting red tape
Building mutual trust at the regulatory level between the US and India is crucial for US companies to claim a slice of India’s digital market without having to worry about being undermined by domestic Indian players stepping in to provide copycat services. .
It is hoped that the renewed enthusiasm for multilateral agreements under the administration of US President Joe Biden could open the door to deeper digital cooperation between Washington and New Delhi, as there are many barriers to more fluid relations.
For example, whenever Indian authorities want information from an American technology company, they have to navigate a maze of red tape through the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Treaty (MLAT).
That means if the Indian police send a request for information to an American tech company, they must first clear the state headquarters. From there, it is sent to the Indian Home Office, which will then forward it to the Foreign Office, which in turn will forward it to the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC. From there it goes to the office of international affairs of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States, after which a judge evaluates the application. Assuming that the judge authorizes the sharing of the information, he returns by the same route.
“It takes between 18 months and three years for an average MLAT request to be fulfilled,” said Udbhav Tiwari, Mozilla’s public policy advisor in India. “You need a full office just to handle the amount of requests that are coming from India as there are so many users here.”
One thing that would make it easier for foreign tech companies to operate in India, Tiwari said, is for New Delhi to overcome some hurdles and gain certification to the Foreign Legal Use of Data (CLOUD) Clarification Act, an EE law. Technology companies are required to provide a user’s stored data on any server they own and operate when requested by another government.
Disdain for big tech
There is much talk in Washington about verification, and even the first steps to verify, the immense power of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and others. Some US lawmakers want to take down the tech giants and remove a piece of internet-related legislation, Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act, which protects platforms from legal liability for the content that users post on their platforms.
Those efforts, which gained momentum during the administration of former US President Donald Trump, have continued under the Biden administration and could “influence Indian government complaints” on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and its content moderation policies, Salman Waris. , a partner at TechLegis Advocates & Solicitors, told Al Jazeera.
“The Biden government’s disdain for big tech will encourage the Indian government to take a more aggressive stance towards some of these players and will also give further impetus to the whole plan to promote local Indian businesses and the rhetoric of the ‘ Self-sufficient India ‘, “He said.
In the days after the Twitter incident in February, India’s local short message app Koo, which has a yellow bird as its logo, saw a surge in downloads after government officials changed it.
Similarly, after New Delhi banned China’s Bytedance-owned short video app TikTok last summer due to tensions with its eastern neighbor, a host of domestic copycats multiplied overnight, all pushing its Indian roots.
If the US government ends up hitting any of the big US tech companies and their business models, it will have global ramifications, independent analyst Rajiv Sharma told Al Jazeera.
That could be felt in India, where both Facebook and Google paid handsomely last year for a stake in Jio Platforms, Reliance Industries’ tech and telecom business, headed by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani.
“If something damages the capabilities of Google and Facebook, the euphoria around the union of the three can take a beating,” Sharma said.
Space for collaboration
One area in which India can offer some digital lessons to the US is net neutrality, the principle that ISPs should treat all content the same and not discriminate or charge different prices.
“India has some of the strictest net neutrality rules” and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India can share information and knowledge with its US counterpart, the Federal Communications Commission, Mozilla’s Tiwari suggested.
The two could also cooperate on cybersecurity. The Biden administration is well positioned to build on the United States-India Cyber Relationship Framework signed by former US President Barack Obama.
“This is a good time for both sides to look at that agreement to see what progress was made and what needs to be done next,” said Deepak Maheshwari, an independent public policy consultant.
Next-generation 6G telecommunications infrastructure could also be an area of interest for the two governments.
India, along with the US and a handful of other countries, has already raised red safety flags about allowing big Chinese companies like Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp to build next-generation telecommunications networks.
And some Indian telecom players avoided partnering with Chinese telecom giants for upcoming 5G trial operations and opted to work with European and Korean players, a government statement revealed in early May.
“Geopolitics will be at the heart of this,” said Asia Group’s Raghuraman. “It would be a strategic move.”
At least the tax issue can become a minor headache. India was one of the first countries to impose a “compensation levy”, a tax on a portion of advertising sales revenue earned by large technology companies in India, which was expanded this year to include sales revenue from e-commerce platform advertising.
But the global mosaic of taxes on digital services could become history. In a major victory for the Biden administration last week, 130 countries, including India, backed a plan to adopt a global minimum corporate tax rate of at least 15 percent, and require large tech companies to pay taxes domestically. where your goods and services are located. They are sold.