The Man Who Rallied India Against Facebook Worries Digital Nationalism Has Gone Too Far

“It’s almost like we have China envy.”

Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Six years before India shook the global internet by banning TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps, Nikhil Pahwa was trying to convince his country to care about tech policy. It was October 2014, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was selling India’s leaders and public on a vision of a free, Facebook-centric internet that would bring hundreds of millions of people online. Pahwa, the founding editor of the media and technology blog MediaNama, wasn’t buying it. “What Zuckerberg means by internet for all is essentially Facebook for all,” he warned.

Facebook’s — later renamed Free Basics — would violate the principle of net neutrality, Pahwa argued, by allowing free access to a set of sites handpicked by Facebook itself, a practice known as “zero-rating.” While India had yet to adopt net neutrality, Pahwa’s critique soon caught on amid a growing sense that Facebook was treating India like a sort of digital colony. He spearheaded a movement called Save the Internet that ultimately succeeded in mobilizing the public, passing net neutrality, and booting out Free Basics for good. While Facebook continued the project in other countries, it never fully recovered.

In the wake of that victory, the Indian internet has boomed, with cheap data rates from India’s own Reliance Jio telecom helping to bring hundreds of millions online, making India the world’s second-largest internet market. Tech policy, once a niche, has become central to the country’s politics. Yet it has also taken on an increasingly protectionist bent that Pahwa worries will undermine his goal of an open, global internet in which India can be a major player. Now, the country that Zuckerberg once saw as virgin territory for Facebook to colonize is at the forefront of a surge of digital nationalism around the world.

Nikhil Pahwa, founding editor of the media and technology blog MediaNama.

Its ban of 59 Chinese apps in June was cited by President Trump as part of the justification for his own executive orders targeting TikTok and WeChat. Now Reliance, India’s most valuable company, is reportedly in talks to take an ownership stake in TikTok’s India business that could pave the way for it to continue operating there, mirroring the Microsoft talks in the U.S.

Before that, India battled WhatsApp over data localization — the requirement that users’ data be stored in the country it’s collected, rather than sent back to Silicon Valley or elsewhere — and has pushed to ban end-to-end encryption, a fight that other countries have also taken up. India has also blocked Facebook’s efforts to build digital payments into WhatsApp, partly with the unspoken goal of preventing the company’s platforms from attaining the sort of dominance that WeChat enjoys in China. It has tightly regulated Amazon and its Walmart-owned rival Flipkart, and last month it launched an antitrust investigation into both.

Now Pahwa is watching, conflicted, as India becomes a leader in a way he didn’t quite envision — a leader not only in standing up to digital colonialism, as he advocated, but in asserting state sovereignty over the online world. Now he’s calling for India and other democratic governments around the world to work together to build a better internet, rather than building walls around their own national versions of it.

The vision of India’s internet that has coalesced in recent years is less about openness and more about control.

“I think our movement has been a trigger for tech policy discussions to become mainstream,” Pahwa said via WhatsApp voice, when I asked him about the role his own reporting and advocacy played in the country’s evolution. “Tech discussions are primetime news now. I’m glad we’re having these conversations, and I’m glad there is consideration given to people who are not affiliated with any company but want the internet to be accessible and open for everyone.”

Yet the vision of India’s internet that has coalesced in recent years is less about openness and more about control, Pahwa said. That has led to much-needed ongoing scrutiny of powerful companies such as Amazon, Flipkart, Facebook, Google, and ByteDance, with antitrust and data localization regulations intended to prevent those overseas giants and regimes from exploiting the world’s second-largest internet market. But it has not been matched with a concern for protecting India’s internet users from their own government, a segment of which has come to view its citizens’ data as a national asset.

“What worries me,” Pahwa said, “is that there seems to be far more state control of the internet being exerted by the Indian government, to the point that freedoms are under serious threat.” He pointed to rules proposed this year that would force social media platforms such as WhatsApp and YouTube to hand over data on their users to the Indian government, curtailing online anonymity and likely ruling out end-to-end encryption.

India justified its ban on Chinese apps with concerns that the Chinese government could use them to surveil or manipulate Indian users, at a time when tensions between the countries are high. Those concerns are legitimate, Pahwa said. “China can’t have it both ways, where they are in a position to exert an inordinate amount of control over the internet in their own country — whether through censorship, taking data from businesses, or converting private companies into an extension of the state — and also try to dominate in markets where that kind of activity is not allowed.”

Yet as with the U.S. bans on TikTok and WeChat that followed, India’s ban — coming on the heels of a deadly melee between Indian and Chinese troops in the disputed Galwan Valley — seemed to be motivated more by politics than national security. “I think this is a case of the argument for data sovereignty coming to a fruition, or finding its expression, and being used by the hawks in India” to advance their own agenda, Pahwa said. “I think this is purely a political decision to do this, to push back in whatever little way India can.”

And while the Chinese government has been perhaps the greatest enemy of an open, global internet, there’s a whiff of hypocrisy in India’s government posturing against it while pursuing some policies that are eerily similar, Pahwa added. “It’s almost like India has China envy. While India was the first to ban all these Chinese apps, at the same time Indian bureaucrats seem to be really interested in moving closer to how China operates in its own jurisdiction.”

As a case in point, India has become a world leader in another dubious category: internet shutdowns. They’ve ranged from the absurd — shutting down the internet in a particular area during school exams to thwart cheating — to the menacing: There was a monthslong blackout in the contested Kashmir region after Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked its semi-autonomous status. That shutdown went down as the longest ever in a democratic country, and the internet remains restricted in the region even today.

Other countries are watching, Pahwa said, and responding to real problems created by dominant online platforms with policies that overreach or abandon the idea of a global internet. He pointed to Brazil’s proposed “fake news” law, which threatens anonymity and encryption, and the EU high court’s rejection of the “privacy shield” framework that allowed data to flow back and forth with the United States.

“I think there is a split that we’re accelerating toward,” he said. “Just like the Chinese internet and Russian internet that are very distinct from the rest of the world, I think we’re going to see more of these blocs getting created, where jurisdictions are going to assert their sovereignty in the same manner the EU is doing when it comes to privacy.”

Pahwa finds it understandable that jurisdictions are turning their backs on openness, even as he finds it frustrating. “When we don’t have norms for the protection of citizens of various countries, it’s difficult to argue against a state that says, ‘We don’t want cyberattacks,’ or ‘This is the only means we have to prevent another country from manipulating our elections.’ I don’t like the outcome of the actions that states are taking, but I don’t think they are without reason.”

In an ideal world, he said, India and other democratic countries would cooperate to establish norms around data privacy, net neutrality, and accountability for cyberattacks and platform manipulation. “That would at least allow the democratic part of the internet to remain connected,” Pahwa said, if not authoritarian countries such as China.

As for the TikTok ban, Pahwa said he believes it’s reasonable as a temporary measure, as are restrictions on the participation of Chinese companies such as Huawei in 5G infrastructure. “In the longer run, I would say that we need to figure out ways in which Chinese apps can still remain operational across the world, but also be held accountable for their actions or the actions of the Chinese state.”

Six years ago, India was at risk of being consigned to its own, substandard version of the internet if the country didn’t stand up to Facebook. Gratifying as it has been to see his government take seriously the internet’s importance to its citizens, Pahwa now worries the country is at risk of ending up with its own, separate version of the internet after all. “I’m not interested in India having a different internet than the EU or the United States,” he said. “But that’s the direction it seems to be going.”

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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