Akash Banerjee is not sure if he’s allowed to talk about the BBC documentary India: Modi’s question on his YouTube channel. The documentary explores Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in the bloody riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, and the government is working hard to keep Indians from watching it. Screenings at universities are prohibited; in one case, students told the authorities Shut up electricity and internet to keep it from being shown, and excerpts from the documentary itself were removed from Twitter and YouTube after the government of India cited conflicting emergency powers.
“The point is that emergency powers are for something that has very serious security implications and threatens the sovereignty of the nation, the peace of the nation,” says Banerjee, a seasoned journalist who hosts The Deshbhakt (“patriot”), a satirical channel on YouTube dedicated to politics and international affairs. Using this, the government banned a documentary that recounts “what happened many years ago”.
This left Banerjee, whose channel has nearly 3 million regular viewers, unaware of where the red lines were. “I don’t know, if I make a video for a BBC documentary, will the government be able to pull it off by also citing emergency powers?” Banerjee says. He is currently practicing self-censorship by refraining from posting anything about the drama that has been gripping Indian politicians for weeks now.
Banerjee’s reluctance to resolve disputes reflects the chilling effect of the Indian government’s multifaceted pressure on the Internet. Over the past few years, the administration has given itself new powers that tighten control over online content, allowing authorities to legally intercept communications, crack encryption, and shut down telecommunications networks in times of political upheaval. In 2021 alone, the government resorted to shutting down the internet more than 100 times. Over the past 10 months, the administration has banned more than 200 YouTube channels, accusing them of spreading disinformation or endangering national security.
Over the next few months, the government will add another piece of legislation that will likely expand its powers. Lawyers, digital rights activists and journalists say this is tantamount to trying to change the Indian Internet, creating a less free and less pluralistic space for the country’s 800 million users. The move could have major repercussions outside of India, they said, forcing changes in big tech companies and setting norms and precedents for internet governance.
“There seems to be an ongoing effort to increase government control over the digital space, whether it’s censoring content or shutting down the internet,” said Namrata Maheshwari, Access Now’s policy adviser for Asia Pacific. These proposals “authorize the executive branch to make rules on a wide range of subjects that can be used to reinforce unilateral power.”
The Indian government’s battle for big technology began with a dispute over agricultural laws. In late 2020 and early 2021, tens of thousands of farmers marched through Delhi to protest the proposed agricultural reforms (which were canceled by the end of 2021). The movement was mirror onlineand farmers and unions use social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to mobilize support. On Twitter, popular accounts such as that of global music star Rihanna expressed solidarity with the protesters. Then-CEO Jack Dorsey liked several celebrity posts in support of farmers.