How Twitter is doing the government’s bidding in India
The Biden administration’s threat to ban TikTok has been all the talk in the U.S. this week. Lawmakers are worried that TikTok poses a unique risk to the U.S. because it is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, which ultimately answers to the Chinese government and Communist Party.
Many of their concerns are valid. But the level of Cold War-ish fanfare shows that lawmakers are losing sight of the bigger picture. As I’ve written before, banning TikTok (and any major social media platform) would mean censoring a major platform for free speech — a violation of the U.S. constitution and a clear signal to other countries that this kind of thing is A-OK. And while TikTok has a unique tie to China, it is arguably the least interesting among the super powerful global social media companies that collect tons of user data that governments might want to look at. Most other companies in this category are based in the U.S., where we still have no comprehensive privacy or data protection laws that could help prevent this kind of cross-border surveillance in the first place. Even China has the U.S. beat on that score. Wilmary Escoto, Anupam Chander and Julia Angwin all offered really valuable insights on the issue. Click around and check out their stuff.
These kinds of threats make for fun geopolitical theater, but they distract from the fact that big tech companies’ interests are often deeply intertwined with those of governments, big and small.
These dynamics were on full display in India this week, where Twitter suspended a smattering of accounts amid a police search for a Sikh secessionist preacher in Punjab — including the account of a member of parliament — all at the behest of state authorities. I dug into the events in Punjab below, with help from my Delhi-based colleagues Alishan Jafri and Shougat Dasgupta.
Evidence also emerged that Google is back in bed with the U.S. Department of Defense. The company has quietly returned to working on a project that will enhance the U.S. military’s use of artificial intelligence in processing aerial images captured by drones. Contract notices obtained last week by Tech Inquiry also show that the company is included in a $9 billion “Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability” contract alongside Amazon, Oracle and Microsoft. This should be an eyebrow-raiser for anyone who follows Google’s checkered history of promising to be ethical in its development and use of AI. Google has some lofty-sounding ethics principles, which CEO Sundar Pichai has repeatedly cited when on the mic. But the company is probably better known for having fired some of the industry’s best-known AI ethics researchers and for getting involved with initiatives like the Pentagon’s Project Maven. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more details on what these new contracts can tell us about the company’s collaborations with the U.S. government.
It’s a problem in Vietnam, too, with Meta. The Vietnamese diaspora group Viet Tan sent an open letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week, offering a pile of evidence showing how the Vietnamese authorities have instrumentalized Facebook to promote their own interests and silence their critics. The letter describes Force 47, the 10,000-troll strong cyber army that promotes state narratives on Facebook, attacks its critics and systematically reports activists and journalists in an effort to get them removed from the platform. It also points to the fact that Meta once resisted broad-based censorship requests from the Vietnamese government, but has, since 2020, honored nearly all requests from the authorities. Censorship of content on Facebook in Vietnam has since shot up by 983%.
PUNJAB SILENCES CRITICS – WITH TWITTER’S HELP
Shougat Dasgupta contributed reporting for this item.
Mobile internet and SMS services were shut down in Punjab, India this past Saturday, when police launched a search for Amritpal Singh, a Sikh secessionist preacher accused of building a private militia. His followers attacked a police station last month, seriously injuring at least six officers.
In the internet shutdown order, authorities invoked public emergency rules and referenced a desire to curb “inflammatory materials and false rumors” about the situation as it unfolded. Some 27 million people were therefore deprived of mobile access to all kinds of news, information, communications apps and plenty more. State-imposed internet outages have become commonplace in India in recent years — there were 84 shutdowns in 2022 alone. India has imposed more network shutdowns on a yearly basis than any other country in the world for five years running.
And it didn’t end here. The Punjab authorities also put Twitter and Facebook to work doing their bidding. Both platforms suspended in-country access to social media accounts belonging to Khalistan supporters and even journalists and sent users notifications indicating that they’d been silenced in response to a legal demand. Twitter even withheld the account of a local member of parliament, Simranjit Singh Mann, a supporter of the Khalistan movement.
This is not the first time a parliamentarian has been suspended at the behest of state authorities. In 2021, MP Sukhram Singh Yadav from Uttar Pradesh had his account suspended temporarily during widespread farmers’ protests, also on the basis of a legal order.
“To block the account of a people’s representative — this is one of the worst things to do in a democracy,” said Yadav, in an interview with tech news outlet Medianama. He’s right. In any case, it is a really big deal for a major tech platform to silence a democratically elected official. But to do it on the basis of a legal order from another state actor, who probably has something to gain from silencing that official, is egregious. If this becomes a norm, what kind of a democracy can Indians count on? And if other states see Twitter honoring these kinds of requests, what will stop them from pursuing the same tactics?
I shudder to think of how Twitter might answer these questions in its current shell-like form. But one journalist at News Laundry gave me a sense. When she asked a Twitter employee for further information about the suspensions, the employee sent back a poop emoji — a typical response to the media of the company under Elon Musk. Twitter has taken the Indian government to court over free speech. But this incident shows just how simple it has now become for the Indian government to use the platform to its political advantage.
Amritpal, incidentally, is still at large. He evaded the police, the Indian media reported, on a motorcycle. “You have 80,000 cops,” a state high court bench scolded the authorities. “What were they doing?”
WHAT WE’RE READING
- This week marked the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I recommend this piece, from our colleagues at Context News, about the mass collection of Iraqis’ biometric data that took place during the U.S. occupation.
- Protests against the Iranian regime have been ongoing for more than six months, and Iran’s cyber army is scrambling to keep up. Arian Khameneh has a deep dive on the IRI for WIRED.
- In “No Rioters,” a public art installation in downtown Hong Kong has integrated the names, ages and jail terms of convicted Hong Kong protesters within a massive digital billboard that hangs above one of the city’s premier shopping districts. Hong Kong Free Press has an interview with artist Patrick Amadon.