A rise in ‘censorship-related policies and practices’ in India has affected US businesses across different media segments, including movies, social media and video streaming, according to a new report released by the United States International Trade Commission. (USITC), an independent body. and a nonpartisan US federal agency.
In particular, the report pointed to rules on intermediate rules, increasing cases of internet shutdowns, and rules on foreign investment limits in digital media in India as impacting US businesses. Some of the cases cited included the “threat of arrest” of Twitter executives and increased takedown orders sent to the microblogging service as well as Google.
The Commission prepared the report based on a request from the Senate Finance Committee; it is the first of two reports on foreign censorship practices that US companies cite as “barriers to trade or investment in major foreign markets.”
A major section of the report focuses on China and concludes that it has one of the highest levels of censorship “in any industry” – a finding that has already led to calls from senators for action and new measures against Beijing.
Besides India and China, the report focuses on four other markets: Russia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Turkey. The report says these markets were scrutinized because governments here had deployed a “wide range of censorship policies” with respect to digital content, and because the demand in each of these markets represented a significant opportunity for businesses. Americans.
The report is advisory in nature, but can be used as the basis for investigation and action.
India’s Commerce Ministry did not respond to an email requesting its response to the USITC report.
“Indo-US trade relations are very vibrant and growing,” a government official said on condition of anonymity.
In the past, Indian officials have said companies are free to operate as long as they follow the country’s law. “I politely remind companies, be it Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or WhatsApp or anyone, that they are free to work in India, to do business, but they must abide by the Indian Constitution, they must abide by the Indian law,” former Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad said during the budget session of Parliament in 2021.
The USITC said American companies were active in most segments of India’s media market – television, publishing, movies, online services, and were among the “major providers of social media and video streaming services”. .
The report claims that the government has exercised censorship practices in two ways – citing relevant laws and regulations to provide notices to “remove content, shut down or slow down internet access, file criminal charges, block broadcasting of a documentary or prevent a television channel from broadcasting”; and by “a variety of informal mechanisms based on intimidation and harassment”.
The report described a series of what it considers to be restrictive measures.
First, he claims that a series of laws “have been widely used in India to target speech and have had a significant impact on American companies operating in India” – these include the Indian Penal Code, the Technology Act Information (IT), Disaster Management Act, Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, among others.
Secondly, he refers to the Cinematograph Act requiring a film to first obtain certification for public exhibition and says, “In some cases so much editing is required that it affects the content of the film and, by therefore, its success at the box office”.
Third, he cites Internet shutdowns. “The number of internet shutdowns in India has been on the rise, with significantly more shutdowns in 2020 than in 2016…these shutdowns are generally regional in nature,” and claimed it affected both American and Indian businesses . “For example, Facebook reported 90 shutdowns that affected access to their service for a total of 17 months (times combined for all regions) in 2020.”
Fourth, the USITC said the government had used its power to “block access to websites and user accounts.” “Government use of Section 69A (of the Computers Act) has increased dramatically in recent years, with the number of ‘websites/webpages/accounts’ blocked… from 2,799 in 2018 to 9,849 in 2020.” The report claimed that the section had also been used to block access to US company websites and user accounts on US social media platforms.
Fifth, the USITC report refers to the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Rules), 2021 – these rules impose a series of obligations on social media companies and digital media platforms – as having raised a number concerns for American businesses. He cites Facebook’s legal challenge to the provision requiring it to identify the “first author” of information; Facebook claimed it would break WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption, while the government cited the need for the provision for law enforcement and in the interest of public order.
Sixth, the report notes that the requirements under the new rules to have a local presence “may allow for censorship.”
Seventh, the report notes that the government caps foreign investment in digital media at 26% (which is in line with print media, but lower than the 49% set for television media), and states: “These new rules have the aftermath led a number of U.S. companies to shut down news operations in India.” And finally, the report claims that informal mechanisms “promoting self-censorship” have affected U.S. businesses. also preemptively self-censor certain content in India. For example, some video streaming services have reportedly censored content before airing it in India. Additionally, they have withheld some or all of certain shows in India due to perceived sensitivities to criticism in government.
(With contributions from Rajeev Jayaswal in New Delhi)