Almost a month ago, the Ministry of Information Technology took the unprecedented step of banning 59 apps/services on the purported grounds that these services were prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India. At the time it was unclear what a ban entailed and how it would be implemented and/or enforced.
However, the subsequent weeks between companies voluntarily suspending their services, Apple and Google de-listing them from their respective app stores and telecom service providers being ordered to block these apps, the ban has been ‘technically’ enforced from the perspective of an average user that may not want to navigate the world of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and TOR. So, for now, it appears that we have the answer to the second question.
Reports now suggest that 47 more apps could be facing a ban with another 275 being monitored closely.
Forests, trees and branches of the internet
In the context of the stand-off between India and China, these moves have and will be portrayed as a strong response to China. As Alex Stamos (former CSO at Facebook) of Stanford’s Internet Observatory illustrates there are several overlapping considerations – many of these are applicable to India too.
Thus, as far as the future of the internet in India (and even the world) goes, these developments cannot be viewed in isolation. And must be looked at in combination with recent events in India, its stated position on cyber sovereignty as well as global trends.
In early July, the websites of three environmental advocacy groups were blocked without any direct warning/notice. In one of these cases, the Delhi Police issued a notice to a service provider catering to one of these groups citing the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). This notice was withdrawn 14 days later and a fresh one citing the Information Technology (IT) Act was subsequently issued.
And while it appears that access has mostly been restored, some telecom providers continue to block the websites in question. Back in May/June, file sharing service WeTransfer was also blocked. And since the relevant sections of the IT Act allow for confidentiality, these orders were not officially released in the public domain.
Though imperfect, it is evident that the capacity to execute these block-lists is improving. Media reports referencing an increase in apps being banned also indicate that a ‘framework’ for ‘constant scrutiny’ of the apps operating in India is being developed. With these developments, the groundwork for what can evolve into a separate Indian internet could well be in place. There have also already been experiments with allow-lists as in the case of Jammu and Kashmir in response to the Anuradha Bhasin judgement in the Supreme Court.
And as I’ve argued in this space before, in multilateral engagements, India does espouse the idea of sovereignty over ‘domestic cyberspace’. It has also chosen not to make its comments on the ongoing Open Ended Working Group consultations on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security available publicly.
This also needs to be viewed alongside developments in Hong Kong in the aftermath of the passage of the national security law. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, Zoom, Microsoft and even Bytedance (TikTok’s parent company) have chosen to pause processing of data requests. And may very well be the first steps towards making the ‘special administrative region’ of Hong Kong an offshoot or splinter of the Chinese branch of the Internet.
It is also important to note that India’s actions have seemingly enabled countries like Australia and the United States to elevate the pitch of their criticism. In July, there have been instances of members from the executive and legislative branches of their governments advocating for bans on TikTok.
Breaking the internet
A recent report by Freedom House points out that ‘cyber norms promoted by China and Russia are expanding to countries such as Brazil, India and Turkey’ and contends that the subsequent splintering of the internet could result in more governments pursuing the cyber sovereignty model. Another report analysing government responses to disinformation across different countries (based on surveys) for the Library of Congress concluded that ‘foreign intervention’ and disinformation was ‘considered a threat to national security’ especially ahead of national elections.
Whether intentional or not, the tendency to pin the blame for disinformation on foreign actors also strengthens the narrative that a domestic or national internet will address disinformation/misinformation. This is likely to result in calls to link real-world identification with presence on the internet and further cleave domestic from international/global spaces. In fact, we have already seen representations to this effect made in Indian courts as recently as May. And the current publicly available draft of the personal data protection bill also proposes ‘voluntary verification’.
With the second largest (and still growing) internet user-base, India’s actions will play a significant role in shaping the future of the internet. If one were to try and read the tea leaves at this juncture, it appears we are on a trajectory to break the internet, just not in a good way.
(Prateek Waghre is a Research Analyst at The Takshashila Institution)
The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.
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