Indian filmmaker Sandeep Rabindranath posted his latest work on YouTube in May. The video, a nine-minute fictional drama with no dialogue titled the anthem for Kashmir, depicts a young political activist over a meme from the authorities. Indian audiences probably picked up on the many references to alleged extra-judicial killings in the heavily militarized province, which India and Pakistan have opposed for decades. In late June, YouTube sent a note to Rabindranath stating that a government body had complained about the film. The details of the government notice were confidential, she said, but the company was taking the anthem for Kashmir in the country offline. The filmmaker was not surprised. “People are jailed just for Facebook posts,” he says.
Kashmir has long been a sensitive topic in India, but recently other issues have become electrified. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has become more aggressive in rooting out cyber crimes and calling it “fake news” on social media. Under Indian law, which includes rules issued in 2021, executives of companies that do not comply with content removal requests could be jailed. Twice this year, Indian journalists have been arrested for online activities in cases that have attracted international attention. The government has also stepped in to provide information about certain encrypted chats to the meta platform’s WhatsApp, citing public safety concerns.
India’s large and growing internet base has increased the government’s concerns about online propaganda, hate speech and other threats. However, critics say the recent moves are only cover to crack down on freedom of expression and dissent. India’s first rules governing the Internet, passed under the previous government after a major terrorist attack more than a decade ago, were one, says Raman Jeet Singh Cheema, Asia policy director at civil rights group Access Now. Complicated, slapped” were drawn in the process. , Nevertheless, they were broadly in line with other large democracies. Like other internet watchdogs in India, Cheema says the official rules are beside the point. “The government doesn’t follow its own rules,” he says. “The government does not follow due process. The system is completely rotten.”
This poses serious difficulties for the US social media giants, for which India is an important market, and they are facing some resistance. WhatsApp filed the lawsuit in response to requirements to turn on notifications. Twitter Inc has posted about Modi’s violation of Bharatiya Janata Party politicians and hate speech. The government has flooded Twitter with requests to delete tweets and accounts, and raided Twitter’s office in New Delhi. In early July, Twitter filed a petition in an Indian court challenging the removal orders.
Google’s YouTube is huge in India, where the site has more monthly users than Twitter worldwide. (The most recent figure shared by YouTube for the country in 2020 was 325 million monthly viewers.) The video service, with its multiple languages and complex politics, has struggled to overcome India’s typical content moderation challenges.
According to the company’s disclosure, the Indian government sent 1,670 takedown requests to YouTube last year, eight times more than in the US. Google does not report how often YouTube complies with such requests. “The concern the government has created is quite powerful,” says Pamela Philippos, a veteran editor in New Delhi and author of Media’s Shifting Terrain, a book about Indian communications.
YouTube spokesman Jack Mellon declined to comment on Anthem for Kashmir. “We have clear policies for removal requests from governments around the world,” he said in a statement. “Where appropriate, we restrict or remove content after a thorough review, taking into account local laws and our Terms of Service.” India’s technology ministry responded in a statement that it was following due process, adding that Rabindranath did not attend a meeting on the matter. He says he did not see how the meeting, which was scheduled after the video was taken down and which would require him to travel to Delhi, would be useful.
Critics say that provocative material that reinforces the political priorities of the Modi government seems untouched by scrutiny—for example, The Kashmir Files, a feature released this year that has been criticized as Hindu nationalist propaganda. A lawsuit in a failed attempt to block the film’s release stated that it “contains provocative scenes that lead to communal violence.” The Kashmir Files trailer has garnered over 50 million views on YouTube.
Daphne Keller, director of the program on platform regulation at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, says India is less than indicative of the approach many governments have toward Internet regulations. She says the Modi government’s strategy of stamping out encrypted messaging and social media posts under the guise of public safety and legitimacy could spread elsewhere. “We should consider it a canary in the coal mine for other faltering democracies,” Keller says. “Including our own.” —With Sankalp Fertial.
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