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The social dilemma
Could the summer of George come (back) to Delhi?
There’s been a lot of coverage of the new social media policies in India and the fallout that’s accompanied them. In January, there were protests in Delhi related to the recent agriculture legislation passed by the Modi government that turned violent - you may remember headlines about the storming of Red Fort - one of India’s most famous landmarks.
The government demanded action from social media companies, like Twitter and the companies acted by suspending accounts, addressing manipulated media, and more. However, Twitter soon restored more than a hundred accounts but shortly after, the Indian government tried to get them to block the accounts again under threat of legal consequence - the back and forth was pretty toxic especially given the warm relationship some of these companies enjoyed with the BJP and that their leaders enjoyed with Prime Minister Modi himself.
That warmth wasn’t on display - instead, the government issued new rules for various tech companies. While these rules are updates to the ones from 2010, they also go a good bit farther. The new rules affect companies with over 5 million users in India and though they will all have the function of reigning in big tech which has been a hobbyhorse of many politicians across the globe - from the US to the EU and Australia. The rules don’t affect all companies equally - WhatsApp and other messaging applications will have to dilute their encryption to remain in the country and Facebook, along with other social media companies, will have to give users a way to verify themselves.
Companies will also be responsible for publishing reports detailing compliance with the new rules and need to quickly take down content as requested by government agencies (akin to the protest account) or users (a process which has been notoriously opaque). They also mandate the creation of new roles for government specific outreach at these companies so those of you looking for a job should consider polishing your resumes. New roles include compliance and grievance officers as well as a contact person available to law enforcement.
Of course, the story didn’t end there - some of the companies (and other nonprofits) decided to fight the government in the public square and it looks like that group decisively lost. Twitter for instance initially argued against them but has since decided to abide by them under threat of possible expulsion from the Indian market. This leads us to consider the question of who has the real power here - is it the companies or the government?
In a way, it’s both. The Modi government needs these companies to an extent - some of the BJP’s success has to do with the ability to disseminate content to hundreds of millions of Indians and social media facilitates this. More importantly, Modi’s simultaneous goals of a 5 trillion dollar economy and a digital India are going to be hard to accomplish if he chases away tech companies through onerous overregulation. On the other hand, tech companies also need the Indian market which is probably why many of them decided to play ball. With China having locked most of them out, many of them rightfully fear being locked out of the second biggest online market in the world and they’re willing to do what they need to to avoid that.
A lot of the commentary around this issue has been charged - some are accusing Twitter of acting akin to the British East India Company which is simply absurd. There is an obvious difference between social media regulation and full scale colonization and it wouldn’t kill commentators to keep that in mind.
Some of the arguments that the government should act to remove Twitter are not new in a way. India has a history of throwing out companies that the government finds undesirable. One need only look to the 1970s when the first non Congress government took power and the veteran socialist leader (and future Defense Minister) George Fernandes was made Union Minister for Industries.
The Janata Party government in which Fernandes served removed Coca Cola from the Indian market. For those of you who enjoy Thums Up, which came to be as a result of this removal, make sure you raise a glass to him - it wouldn’t have happened had Coca Cola maintained its grip on the market. The argument here is that when he threw Coca Cola (and other foreign firms) out, domestic firms took their place. Would Wipro exist without him having sent IBM back to the United States? It’s doubtful. Some are pining for another round - basically, throw out the companies and let Indian ones take their places. They look to the great firewall of China as an example - if only to highlight the fact that local social media companies like Weibo and WeChat are succeeding because of the government keeping out American big tech.
The other side of this argument is that times change and what worked in one era may not work in another. The lynchpin of social media is that it connects people - there is a massive network effect that you can only replicate by growing a user base. None of these tech companies are trying to have a user base in only one country because that runs up against a roof pretty quickly - they all try to expand globally. With that in mind, would an Indian replacement for Twitter work well? The answer seems to be no - the best example being the recently launched Koo. Koo has around 6 million users in India and Twitter around 3x that. Koo has grown quickly by any measure but only time will tell if it can become a multinational akin to the company it is trying to supplant. The only other place where Koo is big is Nigeria which was also recently in the news for banning Twitter. Can you build a company by only going where Twitter is banned/persona non grata? Again, fairly unlikely.
Regulating social media isn’t easy for any government and Americans need only look to D.C. to see the chaos this regularly causes in this country. Getting it right is important and these rules may end up being a touch too heavy handed - the goal should not be to regulate the industry to death. However, some people want these companies gone and for India to have their own summer of George. Time will tell who was right.
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