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India Demands Social Media Firms Help It Track Misinformation Online

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Social media companies are in a confrontation with governments around the world over misinformation on their platforms. There are also concerns about privacy. The conflict is especially heated in India right now. We'll hear in a moment from NPR's Silicon Valley correspondent. But first, we start our coverage in India with NPR's Lauren Frayer.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: One night last month, members of an elite police squad turned up at Twitter's offices in the Indian capital. They said they were there to deliver a notice alerting Twitter to misinformation that was allegedly tweeted by opposition politicians. But police showed up at 8 p.m. with TV cameras. And Twitter's offices were closed anyway under coronavirus lockdown. Michi Choudhary is founder of India's Software Freedom Law Center. She says the police raid looked like a bit of a publicity stunt.

MICHI CHOUDHARY: Serving a notice of that kind in the form that played out just confirms the idea that this is just theater.

FRAYER: Because days earlier, it was actually the government side that was accused of misinformation. Twitter had put a label on some tweets by ruling party politicians. The government asked Twitter to remove that label. Twitter did not. And it called the police raid an intimidation tactic. At issue here is what content gets investigated or blocked on social media and who gets to decide that. The Indian constitution limits speech that risks security or offends religion. But last month, new social media rules took effect that go way beyond that, Choudhary explains.

CHOUDHARY: They actually require platform companies to inform their users not to post any patently false information or mislead. They can suspend accounts and then take down.

FRAYER: So in India right now, if you tweet anything that's obscene, insulting, encourages gambling, is harmful to children - there's a long list - Twitter is required to take it down. And its executives are criminally liable if they don't. Twitter wants India to change these rules and is asking for a three-month exemption. Last weekend, the government appeared to reject that, though, sending Twitter what it called one last notice to comply or face, quote, "unintended consequences."

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RAVI SHANKAR PRASAD: You are a giant earning billions of dollars globally. You can't find a technological solution?

FRAYER: That's India's IT minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, on local News18 TV. He says India needs these new rules because mob violence has erupted here over stuff on social media. And he says while tech executives have been grilled before the U.S. Congress, when India summons them, they often don't show up.

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PRASAD: The same Twitter, other social media companies are complying with all the requirements made in America, in Australia, in Canada, in England. But when it comes to India, they have double standard.

FRAYER: Another part of this is privacy. The Indian government wants to be able to trace the source of misinformation. To provide that, though, messaging apps say they'll have to trace every message. And that means breaking their encryption, says Namrata Maheshwari, a policy consultant at India's Center for Democracy and Technology.

NAMRATA MAHESHWARI: At present, these platforms are not in a position to discern who is sending which message to whom. But the moment they have to comply with a traceability requirement, they have to change that, which means every message that every user sends on the platform now has some kind of identifier tracing it back to the sender.

FRAYER: That's a problem for privacy advocates, not to mention a whole lot more work for tech companies. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has sued the Indian government over this. Maheshwari says it may be the Indian courts who will likely decide in the coming months what social media should look like in India. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

FADEL: To explore this further, we're going to turn to NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Good morning, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So we just heard WhatsApp is suing the Indian government. How are other tech companies responding?

BOND: I mean, it is a real mix. So Twitter says it's told the government that it's, quote, "making every effort to comply" with these new rules. It says it will continue constructive dialogue. Other companies have reportedly complied. But overall, I think these companies - they're just in a very difficult situation. I mean, the Indian government has even threatened to throw Twitter employees in jail.

FADEL: Wow.

BOND: I spoke with Jason Pielemeier at the Global Network Initiative, which is this coalition of tech companies and other groups supporting free expression online. Here's what he said.

JASON PIELEMEIER: Governments have become more and more sophisticated in terms of their understanding of the pressure points that large Internet companies have and are sensitive to.

FADEL: So what are these pressure points that he's talking about?

BOND: Well, I mean, look. India has hundreds of millions of Internet users. It's a crucial market for a company like Twitter or Facebook, especially since they don't operate in China. And also, you know, these platforms - they have become incredibly important communication channels for people all over the world, people in India. And the idea that that could just be shut down - that's really troubling to people like Jillian York, who's a free-expression activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

JILLIAN YORK: As much as these kind of centralized corporate platforms can be frustrating in a number of ways, they are, when it comes down to it, the place where the majority of the world interacts.

BOND: So this creates a real dilemma for Twitter, right? It's not so simple as saying, OK, fine, we're just going to pull out of India because we disagree with these rules. That would go counter to its business interests and to the principles it espouses of being the world's town square.

FADEL: So are there concerns that what's happening in India could set a precedent for other countries that are unhappy with these companies?

BOND: Yeah, I mean, India is certainly a big flashpoint right now. But, you know, we see these tensions flaring up in other countries. Just last Friday, the Nigerian government blocked Twitter after the company took down a tweet from Nigeria's president threatening separatists. Twitter said the tweet was abusive. It locked the president out of his account for 12 hours. The government is threatening to arrest people who keep tweeting. So we see places like India and Nigeria, governments exerting power over tech platforms for political ends.

But even in other democracies, we are seeing increasing demands on tech companies to restrict certain types of speech. You know, Germany has a law requiring companies to act very quickly to take down illegal speech. Even in the U.S., this growing push to curb misinformation - that itself can raise free speech concerns. And so advocates worry we are moving into a world where the Internet just looks really different depending on what country you live in. And that makes it harder for people to access and share information freely.

FADEL: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Thank you, Shannon.

BOND: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAMEER GUPTA'S "SALAAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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