Some see India’s actions as a healthy precedent for other democratic societies. Others have criticized the move, expressing concern about nation states “fracturing” and “shrinking” the Internet, which could lead eventually to not one universal Internet, but several Splinternets.
But this isn’t what India is trying to do. India believes in an open and neutral Internet and supports multistakeholderism. But it cannot allow a situation where its openness is used against its sovereign interests and public security, undermining both citizens’ rights and democratic values.
The Internet revolution triggered a new economy, often referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. From Pentagon defense labs in the 1960s to a ubiquitous presence in everyday mobile phones, the Internet today enables more than half the human population to harness creativity, entrepreneurship and energy to change their lives.
The potential of digital platforms is magnified in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Devices and online services have helped in mobile medicine, critical care and remote education, and enabled supply chains. Social media platforms also form the backbone for digitalization of our democracies, allowing for greater freedom of expression, citizen engagement and participative governance. All of this could well describe India’s Internet experience.
However, the very tools that empower also have the potential to inhibit — mainly, by creating a semipermeable membrane that allows selective passage of information. The risk expands when the rules of this membrane are set by the arbitrariness of algorithms of state-sponsored platforms or dictated by the state of origin. Digital influence operations during elections in the United States and other countries in the West are a case in point. We have seen the impact of nonaccountability of platforms, and the opaqueness of their algorithms and data handling practices, on the lives of citizens.
For a variety of reasons — from fears of upsetting Chinese investors to concerns that democracies should not easily take recourse to bans and restrictions — there has been limited political will on the part of governments to exercise appropriate checks and balances. The platforms have exploited and gamed this dilemma. This has led to them consolidating a grip on information consumption and decision-making that is quite frankly denied to global platforms in China itself. It is in this regard that the Indian decision to ban 59 suspect apps crosses the digital Rubicon and in doing so protects the democratic rights and values of India’s constitution.
India is marking its presence on the Internet with platforms and products that digitally empower a billion citizens. In the past six years, about 500 million Indians have in some manner adapted to a digital way of life. Smartphones are the epicenter of this revolution, and apps are their gateway to the digital world. Cheap Chinese-origin smartphones account for nearly 60 percent of the Indian market, and many of the banned apps come pre-embedded.
India appreciates the importance of presenting its citizens with varied options for digital participation and has enthusiastically embraced digital globalization. But the gains of the digital revolution cannot distract us from the underlying threats of disinformation, information warfare, influence ops and collaboration of national tech platforms and patron state agencies to advance foreign policy goals.
The weaponization of information is real. It could compromise millions of unsuspecting citizens who are pushed to use Chinese platforms, often without explicit knowledge or consent.
China’s “Walled Garden” approach to the Internet has either prevented global platforms to operate in its territory or severely censored and regulated their use. Its long-term goal has been to use such nonreciprocal access and disparities to control its “territorial Internet” while manipulating the rest of the world’s information highway.
State-backed Chinese platforms pose a challenge to not just India but in fact to all democracies. In the long run, endeavors of this nature toxically undermine the ideals and essence of the Internet. India’s ban on certain Chinese apps does not divide the Internet as much as draw a line between platforms incubated in democracies and platforms incubated under Chinese authoritarianism.
India has made its choice.