Chapter Five: Tussle between Indian Government, Social media Apps and the new IT Rules

Tech continues to be front page news in India and not for good reasons. Before we get into that it is morally incumbent upon us to mention- we first spoke of India's primary instrument for vaccine allocation- a english only website+captcha+otp system two weeks back. Nothing has changed since then. The website remains the primary mode of vaccine distribution, it remains restricted to english.

Last year, Digital Empowerment Foundation's founder-director Osama Manzar had written this letter to India's Prime Minister:

The letter along with the detailed submissions is here. In summary, in the face of an unprecedented public health and economic crisis, the letter appealed to the government to ensure free pre-paid credit in the phones of the most vulnerable sections of the society. The suggestion is more important today, as millions scramble for doctors, medical supplies, jobs and even food. Access to vaccines can save lives, as will access to internet, especially given we have made vaccines dependant on access to internet.

In many countries Big Tech has been sued by the Government and for good reasons. In India, in the week that has gone by, the government has been sued by Big Tech.

At the centre of the controversy are India's 'IT Rules'. This week these rules came into effect. They, inter alia, give the GoI block-at-will, without any reason and without any process powers of a super censor over news websites, OTT Platforms (Netflix, Amazon Prime), blogs, YouTube channels and the like. It also demands that encrypted messaging platforms like Whatsapp and Signal destroy their business model-encrypted messaging and allow the government to find the 'first originator' of any message. This is just some of it. Medianama has extensive analysis of the rules.

If you're interested in detailed further reading on this we recommend:

1.     The judgment of the Supreme Court of India in Justice K. S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India

2.     Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

3.     Petition before the High Court of Kerala challenging the IT Rules, 2021.

In the middle of the continuing pandemic, GoI is also having a spat with Twitter. We wrote about some of it in our last chapter here.

In the week that has gone by, multiple news websites including those perceived to be close to the BJP reported that the Delhi Police is 'raiding' multiple offices of Twitter. The news agency ANI even released a video which showed multiple officers in SUVs and 'Special Cell' written on their jackets. One of them was seen questioning someone who appeared to be the owner of one of the physical premises. The Delhi Police however later claimed that they had only gone to 'serve a notice' and not to raid Twitter.

Twitter reacted with concern:

The Indian Government responded with a rebuttal.......

It is tempting to see the aforementioned developments as merely a distraction from what needs everyone's focus- the second wave of the pandemic. That response however risks diminishing the seriousness of the issues at hand. If India goes ahead with the IT Rules which are currently under challenge before various High Courts, it will become China's twin insofar as keeping its citizens under ignorance and surveillance is concerned.

Facebook claims it is going to start doing more to check misinformation.

Take a look at one of the things they say they will do:

"More Context For Pages That Repeatedly Share False Claims

We want to give people more information before they like a Page that has repeatedly shared content that fact-checkers have rated, so you’ll see a pop up if you go to like one of these Pages. You can also click to learn more, including that fact-checkers said some posts shared by this Page include false information and a link to more information about our fact-checking program. This will help people make an informed decision about whether they want to follow the Page."

Wouldn't it be better to delete pages which have repeatedly shared false information? What do you think? The complete details of their announcement are here.

Recommended reading

"I am Ifat Gazia, a Kashmiri Muslim, doing a PhD degree in Communications at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst. I am a podcaster, a filmmaker and as a scholar, I study exactly this: how and why big tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter stifle minority and dissident voices at the behest of the governments they criticize. And despite my background, when Twitter’s censors came for me, I had no idea what to do. "

Read her full account here

DEF Dialogue

When the pandemic hit India in 2020 Digital Empowerment Foundation started the COVID-19 DEF Dialogue wherein expert opinions were taken about the pandemic and the lockdown. During the later part of season 1, DEF Dialogues covered the struggle of the migrants. When the second wave of COVID hit India in April 2021 the health infrastructure in urban centres crumbled and the focus of the world was on Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. However, at the same time rural India too was fighting the crisis and that too with lesser resources. DEF tapped into its network across 1,000 location in 130 districts of India to uncover the realities of COVID-19 that the mainstream media had chosen to ignore. Watch:

 Farmers’ Protests 

In the recent past, the protests –– Citizenship Amendment Act and Farm Bills –– have seen large-scale physical participation across the country. But the question remains how successfully they have challenged the popular narrative that is being pushed through the mainstream media and ecosystem of social media, thus shaping popular perception. A paper titled ‘Protests In The Times Of Social Media: A Case Of Farmers’ Agitation’ attempts to explore the role of social media in terms of the mobilisation of protestors, tackling dis/misinformation campaigns, propaganda and the facilitation of the entire against new farm laws. Asheef Iqubbal and Sana Alam of DEF's Research and Advocacy team conducted field trips to Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur border from 30 December 2020 to 06 January 2021 for this report.

Link to the report-

Digital Sarthak

Digital Sarthak is a national digital entrepreneurship and empowerment programme of Digital Empowerment Foundation supported by United States Agency for International Development and DAI.

The main objective of the project is to increase the digital capacity of women entrepreneurs and community development organizations in marginalized and underserved regions in India by providing them with digital up-skilling support and strengthening their ability to engage on digital and ICT policy issues.

We want to introduce you to one of our Digital Sarthaks today- Ms. Alpna Sharma, who is based in Guna, Madhya Pradesh. Alpna has had polio since she was a child. Her village did not have a college but that did not stop her. She travelled a distance over 100 kilometres everyday to continue her studies after school.


 Thanks to the Digital Sarthak program, Alpna has through a Digital Sarthak centre 'digitally skilled' over a hundred women entrepreneurs in her community. These women are now able to use smarphones, are fluent in the use of social media platforms, can sell and purchase products safely on the internet with the use of mobile wallets and much more. Alpna herself also runs a business where she provides photocopies, access to critical digital utilities on the internet and more. How's that for inspiration?

You can read more of our impact stories here: Digital Sarthak

Netflix and Learn 

This week Tarun recommends you watch:

Directed by Karem Amer and Jehane Noujaim, it follows the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal of 2018. The documentary follows the lives of three people. 

Professor David Carroll of Parsons and The New School, heard Alexander Nix the then CEO of Cambridge Analytica saying that his company had 5000 data points on every American voter. This made Carroll asked for his data points from Cambridge Analytica which the company denied.

Around the same time an investigative journalist named Carole Cadwalladr working for the Guardian, reached to a whistle blower named Christopher Wylie. Wylie had worked for Cambridge Analytica and explained how the company was harvesting people’s personal data from their social media and using it to influence elections.

The scandal reached a tipping point when another senior official of the company named Brittany Kaiser turned whistle blower and pointed out that these data are as influential as military grade weapons. These revelations led to dissolution of Cambridge Analytica. It also forced Mark Zukerberg, founder of Facebook to testify in front of United States Congress. 

The documentary leaves viewers with a sense of nakedness in terms of their lives and activities in digital world.

Until next time, stay safe, on and off the internet. 

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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad

TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad, is a weekly conversational bulletin curated through the news and discussions on social media as well as what's happening on the ground. Through the eyes and ears of Digital Empowerment Foundation across rural India and global south, TypeRight aspires to focus on bringing the contextual relevance of digital technologies and developments on the society - both connected and unconnected.