Increase in censorship-related policies and practices in India has affected American businesses across different media segments, highlights a report by the United States International Trade Commission (USITC), an independent and non-partisan US federal agency. It also includes films, social media and video streaming.
The report has flagged rules related to intermediary rules, increase in instances of internet shutdowns and rules related to foreign investment limits in digital media as having an impact on US businesses. It also cited the threat of arrest of Twitter executives and increase in takedown orders sent to the microblogging service as well as Google.
The Senate Committee on Finance had requested the Committee to prepare the report. It is the first of two reports, which focus on foreign censorship practices that American businesses cite as “impediment for trade or investment in key foreign markets”. The report highlighted that advance of technology has not only provided more outlets for speech, but also created more technical levers to suppress speech.
USITC said US businesses were active in most segments of the media market in India – television, publishing, films, online services and were among the “leading providers of social media and video streaming services”.The report pointed out that the government exercised censorship practices in two ways. The first is by citing relevant laws and regulations to provide notices to remove content, shut or slow down internet access, file criminal charges, block the release of a documentary or prevent a television station from broadcasting. And secondly, through a variety of informal mechanisms based on intimidation and harassment.
In regards to the first, the report said a range of laws has been used extensively in India to target speech. These laws include the Indian Penal Code, Information Technology (IT) Act, Disaster Management Act, Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, among others. It referred to Cinematographer Act requiring that a film first get certification for public exhibition and in some instances, so many edits are required that they affect the content of the movie, and therefore, its box office success.
Highlight internet shutdowns, the report stated that the number of internet shutdowns in India has increased with significantly more shutdowns in 2020 than in 2016. These shutdowns are typically regional in nature and have affected both US and Indian firms. It highlighted that Facebook reported 90 shutdowns that affected access to their service for a total of 17 months (combined lengths for all regions) in 2020.
Furthermore, the USITC referred to the Indian government using its authority to block access to websites and user accounts. Its use of Sections 69A (of the IT Act) has increased significantly in recent years, with the number of websites, webpages and accounts blocked increasing from 2,799 in 2018 to 9,849 in 2020. The report also claimed that the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethic Rules) 2021, impose a range of obligations on social media companies and digital media platforms as having ranged a number of concerns for US firms.