#ProtestAgainstTwitter misses a more clear, present danger to our Internet freedom

If we love the Internet, both netizens of the right and the left, this is not a war we can afford to sit out.

Members of the Indian right launched #ProtestAgainstTwitter, accusing the platform of suppressing right-wing narratives on the platform, and endorsing left-wing ideologues. What is ironic about the protest is that even as they try to get Twitter to change its tune, the BJP government they see as their political representatives is pushing through an Internet intermediaries liability and content monitoring bill, that will allow the government to censor any content it deems unacceptable, a-la-China.

Why are they not concerned with the Internet bill if they are concerned about Internet censorship? Does Twitter present more of a threat than law in the constitution with the full might of the Indian State to back it?

The Internet bill gives the government the power to order platforms to use bots to automatically censor what it deems unacceptable. Again, think of China, and how just using certain words (like Winnie the Pooh) will get your post censored, never to be seen by anyone else.

This is nothing compared to what they say Twitter is doing, which is: giving blue ticks to left-wing commentators; deleting right-wing propaganda from their trending list; and banning right-wing accounts while leaving left-wing fake news merchants untouched.

The dashboard project monitors in near real time the content, themes, and activity of over 1,000 accounts on Twitter. Image: Reuters

The dashboard project monitors in near real time the content, themes, and activity of over 1,000 accounts on Twitter. Image: Reuters

If all of this is going on—and cannot be explained by Twitter’s comprehensive policy against hate speech—then it needs to be addressed, especially insofar as Twitter is failing to act against hate speech by members of the Indian left. I suspect the grouse is much more than the Indian right cannot express its hatred with impunity. In failing to make the protest about freedom of expression, the protesting group, called ‘Youth for Social Media Democracy’ (YSMD), is missing a marketing trick the American right figured out decades ago.

Protestors need to be more worried about the Internet bill than Twitter being right or left-inclined

But even as this circus plays out in Delhi and on the Internet, the Internet bill marches on, looking more and more like a foregone conclusion. YSMD is holding up posters that say Twitter is being a ‘Twitler’, a Hitler-who-is-a-twit, if I have understood them right; but they should be far more afraid of the Internet bill.

Amit Shah may claim BJP will rule India for the next fifty years, in which time a catch-all law like this may come in handy to suppress ‘sickular’ thought, but the odds of a single party holding power for that long in a modern democracy are slim-to-none. It would do the Youth for Social Media Democracy (who do not seem to have a website, or even a Facebook page) good to think about what will happen to their propaganda if the Opposition comes to power and chooses to wield the powers in the Internet bill against them.

Whatever YSMD does or does not do, I hope the rest of us wake up to the danger that this bill represents.

The rationale for the bill is the prevention of the infamous Whatsapp lynchings, but if that is its aim, the bill should come with a long list of riders and caveats to protect against its misuse. No such caveats are in place; included in the ambit of the law is any content the government deems ‘libellous’, or any content the government deems a threat to ‘public safety’.

This last is a category that has been repeatedly struck down by the Supreme Court, but the Indian State does not seem to stop attempting to sneak it in. Plus, there are provisions to take this action before the content is even published, using algorithms.

Representational Image

Representational Image

We do not even know which government agencies can exercise this authority (presumably, it will be the laundry list of 10 agencies the government announced earlier this year). Nor is there any accountability or penalty prescribed for misuse of this power.

Nobody should be trusted with this kind of power, least of all political parties who will do whatever it takes to grab and maintain their rule. For once, it would do us netizens, the educated elite of India, to raise a ruckus before the bill becomes law, rather than wake up to it after the damage has begun and dangerous precedents set.

We allowed the Aadhaar authority to summarily expand State powers in extremely sneaky and harmful ways, mostly because we remained unaware, safe in our belief that it didn’t concern us. But this is the Internet, our playground and our battleground. If we love the Internet, both netizens of the right and the left, this is not a war we can afford to sit out.

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