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Is India at Risk of Chinese-Style Surveillance Capitalism?: Andy Mukherjee

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After five years of negotiations involving the government, tech companies, and civil society activists, the world’s largest democracy is sending its debate on privacy back to the drawing board. The Indian government has junked the personal data protection bill, and decided to replace it with “a comprehensive legal framework.” If the current anarchy wasn’t bad enough, nobody knows what the revamped regime will contain — whether it it will put individuals first, like in Europe, or promote vested commercial and party-state interests, like in China.

Back in 2017, India’s liberals were hopeful. In July that year, New Delhi set up a panel under retired Justice B.N. Srikrishna to frame data protection norms. The very next month, the country’s Supreme Court held privacy to be a part of a constitutionally guaranteed right to life and liberty. But the optimism didn’t take long to fade. The law introduced in parliament in December 2019 gave the government unfettered access to personal data in the name of sovereignty and public order — a move that will “turn India into an Orwellian State,” Srikrishna cautioned.

Those fears are coming true even without a privacy law. Razorpay, a Bengaluru-based payment gateway, was compelled by the police recently to supply data on donors to Alt News, a fact-checking portal. Although the records were obtained legally — as part of an investigation against the website’s cofounder — there was no safeguard against their misuse. The risk that authorities could target opponents of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party led to howls of protests about the stifling of dissent under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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The backdrop to India’s privacy debate has changed. Six years ago, mobile data was expensive, and most people — especially in villages — used feature phones. That’s no longer the case. By 2026, India will have 1 billion smartphone users, and the consumer digital economy is poised for a 10-fold surge in the current decade to $800 billion (roughly Rs. 63,71,600 crore). To get a loan from the private sector or a subsidy from the state, citizens now need to part with far too much personal data than in the past: Dodgy lending apps ask for access to entire lists of phone contacts. The Modi government manages the world’s largest repository of biometric information and has used it to distribute $300 billion (roughly Rs. 23,89,440 crore) in benefits directly to voters. Rapid digitization without a strong data protection framework is leaving the public vulnerable to exploitation.

Europe’s general data protection regulation isn’t perfect. But at least it holds natural persons to be the owners of their names, email addresses, location, ethnicity, gender, religious beliefs, biometric markers, and political opinion. Instead of following that approach, India sought to give the state an upper hand against both individuals and private-sector data collectors. Large global tech firms, such as Alphabet, Meta Platforms, and Amazon, were concerned about the now-dropped bill’s insistence on storing “critical” personal data only in India for national security reasons. Not only does localization get in the way of efficient cross-border data storage and processing, but as China has shown with Didi Global, it can also be weaponised. The ride-hailing app was forced to delist in the U.S. months after it went public there against Beijing’s wishes and eventually slapped with a $1.2 billion (roughly Rs. 9,550 crore) fine for data breaches that “severely affected national security.”

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Still, the scrapping of the Indian bill will bring little cheer to Big Tech if its replacement turns out to be even more draconian. Both Twitter and Meta’s WhatsApp have initiated legal proceedings against the Indian government — the former against “arbitrary” directions to block handles or take down content and the latter against demands to make encrypted messages traceable. The government’s power to impose fines of up to 4 percent of global revenue — as envisaged in the discarded data protection law — can come in handy to make tech firms fall in line; so it’s unlikely that New Delhi will dilute it in the new legislation.

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For individuals, the big risk is the authoritarian tilt in India’s politics. The revamped framework may accord even less protection to citizens from a Beijing-inspired mix of surveillance state and surveillance capitalism than the abandoned law. According to the government, it was the 81 amendments sought by a joint parliamentary panel that made the current bill untenable. One such demand was to exempt any government department from privacy regulations as long as New Delhi is satisfied and state agencies follow just, fair, reasonable and proportionate procedures. That’s too much of a carte blanche. To prove overreach, for instance in the Alt News donors case, citizens would have to mount expensive legal battles. But to what end? If the law doesn’t bat for the individual, courts will offer little help.

Minority groups in India have the most at stake. S. Q. Masood, an activist in the southern city of Hyderabad, sued the state of Telangana, after the police stopped him on the street during the COVID-19 lockdown, asked him to remove his mask and took a picture. “Being Muslim and having worked with minority groups that are frequently targeted by the police, I’m concerned that my photo could be matched wrongly and that I could be harassed,” Masood told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The zeal with which authorities are embracing technologies to profile individuals by pulling information scattered across databases shows a hankering for a Chinese-style system of command and control.

The abandoned Indian data protection legislation also wanted to allow voluntary verification of social-media users, ostensibly to check fake news. But as researchers at the Internet Freedom Foundation have pointed out, collection of identity documents by platforms like Facebook would leave users vulnerable to more sophisticated surveillance and commercial exploitation. Worse still, what starts out as voluntary may become mandatory if platforms start denying some services without identity checks, depriving whistleblowers and political dissidents of the right to anonymity. Since that wasn’t exactly a bug in the rejected law, expect it to be a feature of India’s upcoming privacy regime as well.

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© 2022 Bloomberg LP

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US Senate Panel Approves Bill Empowering News Organisations to Negotiate With Facebook, Google for Revenue

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The US Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to approve a bill aimed at allowing news organizations to band together to negotiate with Alphabet’s Google and Meta’s Facebook and win more revenue.

The bill passed the committee by a vote of 15 to 7, according to a congressional aide. It must now go to the Senate for their approval. A similar bill is before the US House of Representatives.

The bill is aimed at giving news and broadcast organisations more clout after years of criticism that big tech companies use their content to attract traffic and ad revenue without fairly compensating the publishers, many of which struggle financially.

The bill, led by Democrat Amy Klobuchar, attracted some Republican support, with Senators John Kennedy and Lindsey Graham sponsoring it. Other Democrats, like Senator Alex Padilla, expressed reservations about it.

The bill hit a speed bump earlier this month when Senator Ted Cruz won backing for a plan to include provisions to address what he considers the platforms stifling conservative voices.

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On Thursday Klobuchar won support for an amendment that specified that prices for use of content was the issue.

“The goal of the bill is to allow local news organisations to get compensation when major titans, monopolies like Facebook and Google, access their content,” she said at a committee session to vote on the bill.

Unlike other bills aimed at reining in big tech, some progressive groups oppose this measure, including Public Knowledge, on the grounds that it favors big broadcasters like News Corp, Sinclair, and Comcast/NBCU.

Also opposing the bill are two technology industry trade groups that Facebook and Google belong to: the Computer & Communications Industry Association and NetChoice.

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© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Buying an affordable 5G smartphone today usually means you will end up paying a “5G tax”. What does that mean for those looking to get access to 5G networks as soon as they launch? Find out on this week’s episode. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

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WhatsApp Working to Keep Iranians Connected Amid Widespread Internet Shutdown Over Nationwide Protests

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Meta Platforms’ WhatsApp said on Thursday that it was working to keep users in Iran connected after the country restricted access to the app and social media platform Instagram.

WhatsApp “will do anything” within its technical capacity to keep the service accessible and that it was not blocking Iranian phone numbers, the messaging service said in a tweet.

We exist to connect the world privately. We stand with the rights of people to access private messaging. We are not blocking Iranian numbers. We are working to keep our Iranian friends connected and will do anything within our technical capacity to keep our service up and running

— WhatsApp (@WhatsApp) September 22, 2022

Iran on Wednesday restricted access to Instagram and WhatsApp, two of the last remaining social networks in the country, amid protests over the death of a woman in police custody, according to residents and internet watchdog NetBlocks.

Last week’s death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by morality police in Tehran for “unsuitable attire”, has unleashed anger over issues including freedom in the Islamic Republic and an economy reeling from sanctions.

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Protesters in Tehran and other Iranian cities torched police stations and vehicles earlier on Thursday as public outrage over the death showed no signs of abating, with reports of security forces coming under attack.

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that the country had imposed a near-total Internet blackout on Wednesday on the fifth day of protests against the government over Amini’s death, after she was held by the country’s morality police for allegedly violating its strictly-enforced dress code.

Previously, a government official had hinted that security concerns might prompt measures to restrict internet access. As previously mentioned, Instagram and WhatsApp were the last major social media networks operating in Iran.

The country currently blocks Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and WhatsApp. However, top Iranian officials have access to public accounts on these platforms, while Iranians are able to access these services using virtual private networks and proxies, according to the report.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Buying an affordable 5G smartphone today usually means you will end up paying a “5G tax”. What does that mean for those looking to get access to 5G networks as soon as they launch? Find out on this week’s episode. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

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Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen Launches ‘Beyond the Screen’ Organisation to Tackle Social Media Harms

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Whistleblower Frances Haugen – a former Facebook engineer who leaked documents suggesting the firm put profits before safety – on Thursday launched an organisation devoted to fighting harm caused by social media.

The new Beyond the Screen nonprofit said that its first project will be to document ways big tech is failing in its “legal and ethical obligations to society” and help come up with ways to solve those problems.

“We can have social media that brings out the best in us, and that’s what Beyond the Screen is working toward,” Haugen said in a statement.

“Beyond the Screen will focus on tangible solutions to help users gain control of our social media experience.”

Haugen last year leaked reams of internal studies showing executives knew of their site’s potential for harm, prompting a renewed US push for regulation.

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Haugen contended the tech titan, which has since rebranded itself as Meta, put profits over safety. Meta has fought back against the accusation.

Haugen’s nonprofit said it will collaborate with groups including Common Sense Media and Project Liberty that share a “commitment to supporting healthier social media.”

Beyond the Screen’s first project “represents a bold, inclusive, and much-needed effort to drive a seismic shift in how social media operates,” Project Liberty founder Frank McCourt said, according to Beyond the Screen’s statement.

“We look forward to working with Frances and her team to launch this new initiative and advance our shared goal of enabling healthier digital communities and stopping harmful business models.”

Since leaving Facebook in 2021, Haugen has advocated in the US and other countries for legislation meant to make social media platforms safer, particularly for young people.

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Buying an affordable 5G smartphone today usually means you will end up paying a “5G tax”. What does that mean for those looking to get access to 5G networks as soon as they launch? Find out on this week’s episode. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

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