Those living in the developed western world can easily lose track of what a remarkable privilege free and unfettered internet access is. Residents of Europe and North America typically have whatever information they could ever want right at their fingertips, and many of us have become so ingrained in this new connected world that it can be hard to imagine what life was like before the internet.
But it’s an advantage we’re lucky to enjoy. Censorship and surveillance of the internet are rampant in countries like China, Bahrain, and Ethiopia, and North Korea. These censorship efforts are largely an opportunity for political operatives in power to retain that power, but the effect it has on their populations can be dramatic and unfortunate. Such is the case in India. The ruling Bharatiya Janta Party has strict rules in place about what their populace can access, and it’s having the most meaningful effect on the poorest and most vulnerable citizens. That India is positioned as one of the world’s preeminent providers of software development and web marketing while denying those tools to swaths of their population is no small irony.
The truth is that the ruling politicos have plenty of reason to be concerned about free and open internet access. Their heavy handed attempt to control both digital and print media is all in service of repressing class struggle. As a nation that enjoys a wide disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest, the well-heeled elites have plenty to lose if the more unfortunate have access to a global pool of information and more flexible means of communication. Rebellions against the current government are very real and could potentially pose a meaningful threat to those in power. Because in addition to their burgeoning tech startups, India’s economy is largely borne on the back of mining operations. As mining companies expand increasingly into the Northeastern regions of India – where the wealth gap is especially pronounced – they displace native groups. These are communities that already have limited access to education, medical care, and basic utilities.
Despite the level of poverty in these communities, they’ve latched on to internet technologies to assist in organizational efforts, and these efforts are largely focused on mobilizing against political repression. Due to its encrypted nature, WhatsApp has become an especially useful tool for these communities. And while the government could make plausible arguments for how free and open internet could prove a public risk, it provides a worrying pretext. A spate of fake news disseminated in northeast India led to a gruesome series of lynchings, crimes which led the local government to shut down all internet access in the region. And while the crimes committed were very real, these acts of suppression can dramatically curtail the freedoms of their people. While the argument may be that these emergency shutdowns can be used in a case of national emergency, they’re just as often used to silence protesters and dissidents that don’t necessarily pose a clear and present threat.
For their part, American tech companies like Google have been outspoken in their criticism of India’s censorship practices, but there’s only so much activism that we can expect from profit-driven businesses. Google has already caved on China’s own censorship efforts. Engaging these issues directly will demand an outcry from people throughout the world, and it may need to happen sooner rather than later. If the disenfranchised of India don’t have the means to signal boost their plight, it’s unlikely that anyone with the means to change matters will be able to hear them.