India Targets Climate Activists With the Help of Big Tech

Original article here. Some excerpts follow:

THE BANK OF cameras that camped outside Delhi’s sprawling Tihar jail was the sort of media frenzy you would expect to await a prime minister caught in an embezzlement scandal, or perhaps a Bollywood star caught in the wrong bed. Instead, the cameras were waiting for Disha Ravi, a nature-loving 22-year-old vegan climate activist who against all odds has found herself ensnared in an Orwellian legal saga that includes accusations of sedition, incitement, and involvement in an international conspiracy whose elements include (but are not limited to): Indian farmers in revolt, the global pop star Rihanna, supposed plots against yoga and chai, Sikh separatism, and Greta Thunberg.

The case against Ravi and her “co-conspirators” hinges entirely on routine uses of well-known digital tools: WhatsApp groups, a collectively edited Google Doc, a private Zoom meeting, and several high-profile tweets, all of which have been weaponized into key pieces of alleged evidence in a state-sponsored and media-amplified activist hunt. At the same time, these very tools have been used in a coordinated pro-government messaging campaign to turn public sentiment against the young activists and the movement of farmers they came together to support, often in clear violation of the guardrails social media companies claim to have erected to prevent violent incitement on their platforms.

In a nation where online hatred has tipped with chilling frequency into real-world pogroms targeting women and minorities, human rights advocates are warning that India is on the knife edge of terrible violence, perhaps even the kind of genocidal bloodshed that social media aided and abetted against the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Through it all, the giants of Silicon Valley have stayed conspicuously silent, their famed devotion to free expression, as well as their newfound commitment to battling hate speech and conspiracy theories, is, in India, nowhere to be found. In its place is a growing and chilling complicity with Modi’s information war, a collaboration that is poised to be locked in under a draconian new digital media law that will make it illegal for tech companies to refuse to cooperate with government requests to take down offending material or to breach the privacy of tech users. Complicity in human rights abuses, it seems, is the price of retaining access to the largest market of digital media users outside China.

After some early resistance from the company, Twitter accounts critical of the Modi government have disappeared in the hundreds without explanation; government officials engaging in bald incitement and overt hate speech on Twitter and Facebook have been permitted to continue in clear violation of the companies’ policies; and Delhi police boast that they are getting plenty of helpful cooperation from Google as they dig through the private communications of peaceful climate activists like Ravi.

“The silence of these companies speaks volumes,” a digital rights activist told me, requesting anonymity out of fear of retribution. “They have to take a stand, and they have to do it now.”

[a] new code is being introduced in the name of protecting India’s diverse society and blocking vulgar content. “A publisher shall take into consideration India’s multi-racial and multi-religious context and exercise due caution and discretion when featuring the activities, beliefs, practices, or views of any racial or religious group,” the draft rules state.

In practice, however, the BJP has one of the most sophisticated troll armies on the planet, and its own politicians have been the most vociferous and aggressive promotors of hate speech directed at vulnerable minorities and critics of all kinds. To cite just one example of many, several BJP politicians actively participated in a misinformation campaign claiming that Muslims were deliberately spreading Covid-19 as part of a “Corona Jihad.” What a code like this would do is enshrine in law the double digital vulnerability experienced by Ravi and other activists: They would be unprotected from online mobs revved up by a Hindu nationalist state, and they would be unprotected from that same state when it sought to invade their digital privacy for any reason it chose.The “lethal” new code is “aimed at killing the independence of India’s digital news media. This attempt to arm bureaucrats with the power to tell the media what can and can’t be published has no basis in law.”

Apar Gupta, executive director of the digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation, expressed particular concern about parts of the new code that may allow government officials to track down the originators of messages on platforms like WhatsApp. This, he told the Associated Press, “undermines user rights and can lead to self-censorship if users fear that their conversations are no longer private.”

Harsha Walia, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and author of “Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism,” puts the dire situation in India like this: “The latest proposed regulations requiring social media companies to assist Indian law enforcement is yet another outrageous and undemocratic attempt by the fascist Hindutva Modi government to suppress dissent, solidify the surveillance state, and escalate state violence.” She told me that this latest move by the Modi government needs to be understood as part of much broader pattern of sophisticated information warfare waged by the Indian state. “Three weeks ago, the Indian government shut down the internet in parts of Delhi to suppress information about the farmers protest; social media accounts of journalists and activists at the farmers protest and in the Sikh diaspora were suspended; and Big Tech cooperated with Indian police in a number of baseless but chilling sedition cases. In the past four years, the Indian government has ordered over 400 internet shutdowns, and the Indian occupation of Kashmir is marked by a prolonged communications siege.”

The new code, which will impact all digital media, including streaming and news sites, is set to take effect within the next three months. A few digital media producers in India are pushing back. Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wiretweeted last Thursday that the “lethal” new code is “aimed at killing the independence of India’s digital news media. This attempt to arm bureaucrats with the power to tell the media what can and can’t be published has no basis in law.”

Do not expect portraits of courage from Silicon Valley, however. Many U.S. tech executives regret early decisions, made under public and worker pressure, to refuse to cooperate with China’s apparatus of mass surveillance and censorship — an ethical choice, but one that cost companies like Google access to a staggeringly large, lucrative market. These companies appear unwilling to make the same kind of calculation again. As the Wall Street Journal reported last August, “India has more Facebook and WhatsApp users than any other country, and Facebook has chosen it as the market in which to introduce payments, encryption and initiatives to tie its products together in new ways that [CEO Mark] Zuckerberg has said will occupy Facebook for the next decade.”

For tech companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Zoom, India under Modi has turned into a harsh moment of truth. In North America and Europe, these companies are going to great lengths to show that they can be trusted to regulate hate speech and harmful conspiracies on their platforms while protecting the freedom to speak, debate, and disagree that is integral to any healthy society. But in India, where helping governments hunt and imprison peaceful activists and amplify hate appears to be the price of access to a huge and growing market, “all of those arguments have gone out the window,” one activist told me. And for a simple reason: “They are profiting from this harm.”

Naomi Klein’s latest book is “How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other,” just published by Simon & Schuster. 

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