Big Tech Companies Hit Legal Problems In India
Global internet companies, which have seen explosive growth in India as hundreds of millions of people have come online over the last few years, now find themselves in a tricky place. Some, like Google and Facebook, that have collectively plowed more than $10 billion into the country and count it among their largest markets, suddenly find themselves struggling to balance the rights and privacy of the people who use them with the unrelenting demands of an increasingly aggressive government.
“All these companies have a large number of users in India and are trying to make money off of them,” said Chima from Access Now. “When that happens, you’re more dependent on the government in terms of following the country’s rules and regulations. It puts you at their mercy.”
Some companies are reportedly “disillusioned” and are rethinking expansion plans in the country despite its potential for growth and for still being more accessible than China even with its creeping authoritarianism.
But by and large, American platforms seem to be falling in line.
A Google spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that it had appointed three grievance and compliance officers in India as the rules require companies to do. Last month, the company released its first monthly compliance report under the new rules, which revealed the number of complaints it had received and what action it had taken.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment but has reportedly appointed the compliance and grievance officers required by the rules. The company’s head of operations in India recently told local press that “it makes sense to have a framework for accountability and for having rules around harmful content.”
Netflix’s vice president for content for the country told Indian press that the “goal of the government and that of the [digital streaming] industry is to do what is best for consumers and the creators,” but the company has otherwise been silent on the rules. Netflix declined to comment on record, but people familiar with the company’s thinking told BuzzFeed News that it had, indeed, hired a grievance officer and established an in-house grievance redressal process. They also said that Netflix now shows content descriptors and age classification for shows and movies, something that the new rules require streaming services to do.
“Prime Video has already implemented the necessary systems and deployed the relevant processes for adherence with the New Rules within the timelines prescribed by the government,” an Amazon Prime Video spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, adding that the company believes that compliance with the new rules “is not a static obligation, rather an ongoing process.”
This doesn’t mean that platforms are caving completely.
In May, the first day the new rules went into effect, WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned instant messenger with more than 500 million users in the country, sued the Indian government over parts of the rules that would force the company to break the app’s encryption and compromise people’s privacy.
“Civil society and technical experts around the world have consistently argued that a requirement to ‘trace’ private messages would break end-to-end encryption and lead to real abuse,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News at the time. “WhatsApp is committed to protecting the privacy of people’s personal messages and we will continue to do all we can within the laws of India to do so.”
The reason WhatsApp can do this is that the rules were pushed through via executive order, which means they didn’t go through the usual parliamentary process required to pass a law. That leaves them open to legal challenges. “This is the first time in any liberal democracy where massive rules like these have been issued without going past a single elected lawmaker,” Chima said. “I think going to courts is the right strategy,” Choudhary, the lawyer from New York, told BuzzFeed News. “It buys them time.”
But other big platforms disagree. In June, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal, policy, trust, and safety, said that litigation was a “blunt tool” when asked whether the company plans to challenge India in courts at RightsCon, a digital rights conference.
“It’s a very delicate balance to draw when you want to actually be in a court versus when you want to negotiate and try to really make sure that the government understands the perspective that you’re bringing,” Gadde said. “Because I do think you can lose a lot of control when you end up in litigation. You certainly don’t know what’s going to happen.” She added that having an “open dialogue” is important.
That doesn’t mean that Twitter hasn’t been resisting, however. For most of this year, the company has been at the center of a high-profile tug-of-war with India’s government over censorship in general and the IT rules in particular.