Late last year, India introduced The Information Technology [Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules] 2018 which gave the government sweeping powers to regulate social media. While every sovereign state reserves the right to govern its own information space, what is worrying about the broad powers that the Indian government has given itself is how it may impact people living outside of India.
Unlike the U.S. and China where the most popular social media platforms are domestic operations, in India the most popular social media platforms are American. As such, India has been openly putting pressure on U.S. companies to restrict content as per the wishes of New Delhi. Months after the new guidelines were passed, it seems that India has not hesitated in respect of working with U.S. social media platforms in order to censor content it deems to be unpleasant.
According to Reuters, Facebook just removed “57 accounts, 24 pages, seven groups and 15 Instagram accounts” in Pakistan that issued statements in support of the Pakistani Army. Likewise, over 500 accounts that produced content in support of the Indian National Congress party were expunged from the U.S.-based social media platform.
The removal of pages and accounts containing patriotic Pakistani content is particularly worrisome because it implies that either the Indian government or sources that support the Indian government are now depriving Pakistanis of the ability to share patriotic views among one another, even though the Pakistani government self-evidently has no problem with such content.
Although the censoring of content in support of one of India’s mainstream political parties is worrying on another level, the most profound danger at hand is that companies from one country can work with the government of a second country in order to restrict content in a third country.
In this case, it would appear that Facebook and India have one point of view and as such, Facebook has taken the extraordinary measure of limiting what Pakistanis can see within their own nation. It would be one thing for Facebook to restrict such pages within India, but it is an entirely different matter for Facebook to do so within Pakistan and further abroad.
These recent events set a deeply worrying precedent that could see powerful companies like Facebook working with governments of large nations to stifle online speech in third countries. The emergent pattern is one that indicates the opposite of a rules-based and internationally agreed-upon system of online standards.
In this shocking new reality, the powerful are acting against the rights of the materially weaker in order to force an implicitly one-sided and ultra-nationalist message upon the wider world. India is a larger country than Pakistan and as such, Facebook naturally has more potential revenue that can be derived from India as opposed to Pakistan.
When one examines what is happening to both Pakistani Facebook accounts and those supporting India’s opposition, the dangers to normal political conditions become clear. According to this readily observable trend, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is calling the shots that Facebook then executes with the victim being the freedom of Pakistanis to express themselves in accordance with their own laws and cultural characteristics. India’s own main opposition party has also been a victim of what amounts to international bullying tactics.
In a wider sense, this represents wholesale molestation of Pakistan’s sovereignty over its own people and online public spaces. It is also indicative of how the BJP government is relying on a major foreign company in order to enforce one particular interpretation of political trends over that of a legitimate opposition party and their domestic supporters shortly before a highly important election.
The recent tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir as well as an Indian election that is being conducted in an increasingly hostile social environment mean that the Indian government’s attempt to use Facebook to a distinct advantage could have very major implications for the region.
It is therefore imperative that the issue is properly scrutinized so as to avoid a harmful escalation of an already tense regional dynamic.