I was in a cavernous auditorium on the cold winter afternoon in New Delhi in 2015, when Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, sold the promise of India, his home country and the company’s largest market, to 2,000 high school students.
“One reason we are all very interested in India is that it is an amazingly young country,” he said. “It’s a huge country, and in many ways we believe that the trends of the future will come from such places.”
For the next few years, growth-hungry American tech companies have their sights set on India, where hundreds of millions of people went online for the first time thanks to cheap Android phones and falling data prices. Venture capital flowed through the congested streets of Bangalore. Millions of Indians suddenly booked their first Uber trips, received their first Amazon packages, watched their first Netflix shows and had their first WhatsApp chats, some of which were run on the free WiFi that Google uses to train stations Country covered. A great deal of excitement had come our way.
My colleague Mat Honan described these years as “a manifestation of the hope and excitement of the next billion who not only goes online but comes to power” when he profiled Pichai in 2016. “It feels like a nation is on the rise.”
Tech made us and made us unmade. Before Facebook let misinformation flourish, before Twitter let the trolls go wild, and before WhatsApp lynched Indians, tech companies tied us up and promised a billion people a place at the same table as the rest of the world – as long as they had an inexpensive data plan .
At the same time another kind of upheaval was going on. In 2014, a year before Pichai flew to India, millions of Indians had voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing politician with deep roots in RSS, a Hindu nationalist organization from which his Bharatiya Janata party derives its ideology. Many people had hoped that Modi would usher in economic prosperity, but instead, India’s democracy has collapsed. Ham-fisted decisions like banning most banknotes destroyed India’s cash-based economy, while crimes against minorities skyrocketed. Journalists were harassed, imprisoned and shot; Human rights activists have been jailed for years without trial; Clashes broke out in the capital. Millions spoke out against a controversial new citizenship law that will expedite Indian citizenship for members of major South Asian religions other than Islam. and for months farmers have been protesting new agricultural laws that they said would harm their businesses.
Tech made us and made us unmade.
I let these incidents take place in the background of my mind for years. I grimaced as I scrolled through my bloodshed, violence, and anger Twitter feed each week, and drowned in alcohol and video games on weekends to numb the pain. But every Monday I would throw myself back into tech news, trying to keep up with Silicon Valley, a world away from India’s dust and dirt and blood and gloomy politics. I sent WhatsApp texts of admiration and solidarity to friends in the country who write on the front lines about crime and politics. But I told myself that I didn’t have to confuse myself. I was a tech reporter, I thought, and the biggest news in my industry was new iPhones every September.
Separating what I cover from the horrors that were going on around me became my coping mechanism. Unfortunately it didn’t work for a while. For years I have tried to live in the comforting fiction that what happened in India and what happened in the world of tech were separate things – but that’s no longer true.
For more than a year, the Indian government initially interrupted and then throttled Internet access to Jammu and Kashmir with a Muslim majority after it unilaterally withdrew its autonomy from the disputed region. Facebook executives have reportedly protected members of India’s ruling party from the platform’s hate speech rules to protect the company’s business interests. Right-wing trolls have used social media platforms to harass women who they say have violated their religious sensibilities. Hindu nationalists have repeatedly insulted original shows produced by Netflix and Amazon, claiming that the platforms insulted Hindu gods and promoted “love jihad,” a conspiracy theory that accuses Muslim men of converting Hindu women. In 2020, rioters used Facebook Live to incite violence in Delhi. Last month, the Indian government threatened to jail executives from Twitter for failing to comply with an order to freeze hundreds of accounts, many of which were critical of the government, and Delhi police briefly jailed a young climate activist after being charged with sedition Google Doc had been charged.
I love technology. But seeing it intersect with a nationalist Hindu government trying to stifle dissent, stifle a free press, and destroy a nation’s secular ethos doesn’t feel like something I bought a ticket to . Writing about technology from India now feels like a front row seat to quickly slide into authoritarianism. “It’s like watching a train crash while you’re on the train,” I said to my boss in November.
In the physical world It seemed like things were getting out of hand. In late 2019, protests against the controversial new citizenship law rocked the nation. In January 2020, masked idiots triggered violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University, whose students and staff are often classified as “anti-national” by the ruling party. Soon after, communal unrest rocked New Delhi, the city I live in. More than 50 people died. Yet millions of Indians were free to express their opinions online, at least when the government hadn’t shut down their internet.
That February it seemed like the walls were finally closed. Last week of this month, the Indian government imposed draconian rules giving it the final say on which social media platforms to abandon, which streaming services to display, and which news sites to post. Messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal may also be required to break the encryption to keep track of who sent a text message to whom.
Social media companies now have to eliminate everything the government deems problematic in three days and everything law enforcement is dissatisfied with in 36 hours. Platforms also need to pass on people’s information to law enforcement when they ask for it. If the platforms do not meet the requirements, local employees can be prosecuted and companies can lose their protection from being held responsible for content that is published by people.
In India, if someone insults a scene on a show or movie on a streaming service, they can file a complaint. If a service does not respond or does not provide a satisfactory explanation, the complainant can contact the federal government, which can then force the services to censor, edit, or remove the content.
A new government committee can now get online news publications to change, delete, or apologize for stories, podcasts, videos or social media posts – or close them altogether. If a platform, streaming service, or website finds a claim inappropriate or illegal, there are no viable ways to roll it back.
If the courts don’t intervene, our internet is now in shackles.
When the rules were announced, experts across the country cried badly. The Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights organization in New Delhi, said the new rules would “fundamentally change the way the Internet is experienced in India,” calling them “unconstitutional” . The editors of Digital News Operations said the new rules are “tearing us down” and calling them “an attempt to kill digital democracy”.
So far, American technology companies have remained silent.
It’s like watching a train crash while on the train.
Netflix, Amazon and WhatsApp declined my requests to comment on the new rules. Facebook and Google did not respond.
A Twitter spokesperson said: “Twitter supports a forward-looking regulatory approach that protects the open Internet, promotes universal access, and fosters competition and innovation. We believe that regulation is beneficial if it protects citizens’ fundamental rights and strengthens online freedoms. We are studying the updated Interim Guidelines and working with a number of organizations and organizations that are affected by them. We look forward to further engagement with the Indian government and hope that a balance between transparency, freedom of expression and data protection is promoted. “
When I speak to ordinary people in these companies, they seem nervous. There is a lot of nervous laughter. Some people stammer and trip over their sentences. “I don’t know if I should talk about it,” someone says. Few people want to speak up, and those who are concerned about not only losing their jobs for speaking to journalists, but also retaliation against powerful politicians. “To be honest, I haven’t slept much these days,” a Twitter employee recently told me. Another person who works for a social media company told me they are trying to find out who is at risk of jail if the government cracks down on them.
American tech companies are certainly no saviors. They seem to have different standards for the rest of the world. In India, Twitter is letting far-right bigots get away with hate speech and harassment. WhatsApp is full of rumors and lies. And Facebook is Facebook. They have let us all down in countless ways. Still, it would be shit if their employees in India fell victim to the country’s majority politics and ended up behind bars.
I know that things are going downhill not only in India. For the past four years, I’ve watched the U.S. get caught up in a mass madness called QAnon that went from the Internet to the Capitol itself. In contrast to his Indian colleagues, however, there is no danger of Mark Zuckerberg going to jail. American democracy itself seems to have prevailed.
What if this is not the case with us?
“I’m jealous of the damn First Amendment. I would also like a first amendment. ”
I am jealous of the life my friends, family, and colleagues lead in the United States and the freedoms they take for granted. I’m jealous of the damn First Amendment. I would also like a first amendment.
I slumped on the couch on a bright spring morning in March after a Washington, DC NGO declared that India was only “partially free.” Weeks later, when a Swedish institute downgraded the country’s status from democracy to “electoral democracy”, I took a mental health day off work.
My therapist tells me to activate my “calming system” to cool myself down using chain saw demons from video games Eternal fate. But no matter how many I kill, the demons in my head keep popping up.
I can’t sleep, so I lurk in Slack until the wee hours of the morning, watching colleagues across the world discuss bad tweets, Oprah, Yahoo Answers, and the coronavirus. I’m jealous of the American news cycle full of stories of crazy people paying millions of dollars for digital art. When someone asks me why I am awake long after midnight, I mumble about needing to fix my sleep cycle. Then I’ll be back on the train and race myself and a billion people faster and faster towards God knows what.
Sometimes I think about that cold day in 2015 when Pichai raved thousands of bright young students about India’s potential. I wonder what they are up to and if six years later they still have the same dreams and aspirations. I wonder if they got jobs and if they got laid off. I wonder if Pichai, the CEO of a trillion dollar internet giant, saw what would come as he bet on his company’s future.
“I can’t remember a time when it was so stressful just to live in this country,” I wrote on my private Instagram account. “Seriously, how does everyone in the media deal with the constant flow of bad news every day?” I tweeted last month. “Personally, I was shot.”
Dozens of people slide into my DMs. Somebody tells me to get a pet. Others tell me to subscribe to National Geographic. “Anything that keeps you from hardcore news but is still about the world you live in,” they say.
I do not subscribe to National Geographic. Instead, I spend more and more time on blogs and YouTube channels discussing gadgets and Apple rumors. It’s comforting to see someone unpack a shiny new phone and speculate about new features in the next version of macOS. In the last week of March, news of an Apple event briefly cleaned up my blood-soaked Twitter timeline. In June we will finally see what the new operating system for the new iPhones and Apple Watches will look like. We might even see new smart glasses, say overly obsessed fans.
With each passing year, seeing Tim Cook on stage selling a thousand dollar smartphones felt more and more like watching a two-hour commercial that changes only slightly each time it is executed. But this year I can’t wait – if I just step back from the real world for a while. ●