I was in a cavernous college auditorium on the frigid winter afternoon in New Delhi in 2015 when Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, was selling the promise of India, his home country and the company’s largest market, to 2,000 high school and college students.
“Part of the reason we’re all very interested in India is that it’s an amazingly young country,” he said. “It’s a vast country, and in so many ways, we do think the trends of the future will come from places like that.”
Over the next few years, American tech companies hungry for growth set their sights on India, where hundreds of millions of people were coming online for the first time thanks to cheap Android phones and crashing data prices. Venture capital coursed through Bangalore’s clogged streets. Millions of Indians were suddenly booking their first Uber rides, receiving their first Amazon packages, watching their first Netflix shows, and having their first WhatsApp chats, some of it powered by the free Wi-Fi that Google was blanketing the country’s railway stations with. A great churning was upon us.
My colleague Mat Honan described those years as a “manifestation of the hope and excitement of the next billion not only coming online, but coming into power,” when he profiled Pichai in 2016. “It feels like a nation on the make.”
Tech made us and unmade us. Before Facebook let misinformation thrive, before Twitter let the trolls run wild, and before WhatsApp got Indians lynched, tech companies unshackled us and promised a billion people a seat at the same table the rest of the world was at — as long as they had an inexpensive data plan.
But at the same time, a different kind of churning was underway. In 2014, a year before Pichai flew down to India, millions of Indians had voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing politician with deep roots in the RSS, a Hindu nationalist organization that his Bharatiya Janata Party draws its ideology from. Many people had hoped that Modi would usher in economic prosperity, but instead, India’s democracy has crumbled. Ham-fisted decisions like banning most banknotes destroyed India’s cash-based economy, while crimes against minorities shot up. Journalists were harassed, jailed, and shot; human rights activists languished in jail for years without trials; communal clashes erupted in the capital; millions spoke out against a contentious new citizenship law that fast-tracks Indian citizenship for members of major South Asian religions except Islam; and for months, farmers have protested new agricultural laws that they said would hurt their businesses.
Tech made us and unmade us.
For years, I let these incidents play out in the background of my consciousness. I grimaced as I scrolled through my Twitter feed full of bloodshed and violence and anger each week, and drowned weekends in alcohol and video games to numb the pain. But each Monday, I threw myself back into tech news, trying to keep up with Silicon Valley, a world away from India’s dust and grime and blood and murky politics. To friends in the country who write about crime and politics from the frontlines, I sent WhatsApp texts of admiration and solidarity. But I told myself that I didn’t need to get mixed up. I was a tech reporter, I reasoned, and the biggest news in my industry each September was new iPhones.
Separating what I cover from the horrors unfolding around me became my coping mechanism. But unfortunately, it hasn’t worked for a while. For years, I tried to live in the comforting fiction that what was happening in India and what was happening in the world of tech were separate things — but that isn’t true anymore.
For more than a year, India’s government first cut off and then throttled internet access to Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir after unilaterally withdrawing the disputed region’s autonomy. Facebook executives reportedly shielded members of India’s ruling party from the platform’s hate speech rules to protect the company’s business interests. Right-wing trolls have used social media platforms to harass women who they say offended their religious sensibility. Hindu nationalists have repeatedly taken offense to original shows that Netflix and Amazon have produced, claiming that the platforms were offending Hindu gods and promoting “love jihad,” a conspiracy theory that accuses Muslim men of converting Hindu women. In 2020, rioters used Facebook Live to incite violence in Delhi. Last month, India’s government threatened to jail Twitter executives for not complying with an order to block hundreds of accounts, many of which were critical of the government, and Delhi police briefly threw a young climate activist in jail after charging her with sedition for editing a Google Doc.
I love tech. But watching it intersect with a Hindu nationalist government trying to crush dissent, choke a free press, and destroy a nation’s secular ethos doesn’t feel like something I bought a ticket to. Writing about technology from India now feels like having a front-row seat to the country’s rapid slide into authoritarianism. “It’s like watching a train wreck while you’re inside the train,” I Slacked my boss in November.
In the physical world, it seemed like things were spiraling out of control. At the end of 2019, protests about the controversial new citizenship law roiled the nation. In January 2020, masked goons unleashed violence at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, whose students and staff are frequently branded by the ruling party as “anti-national.” Soon after, communal riots rocked New Delhi, the city I live in. More than 50 people died. But still, millions of Indians could freely voice their opinions online, at least when the government didn’t shut down their internet.
This February, it felt like the walls finally closed in. In the final week of that month, India’s government imposed draconian rules that gave it the last word over what social media platforms will leave up, what streaming services will show, and what news websites will publish. It might also require messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal to break their encryption so that it can track who texted whom.
Social media companies are now required to take down anything the government deems problematic within three days, and anything that law enforcement is unhappy with within 36 hours. Platforms must also hand over people’s information to law enforcement agencies if they ask for it. If the platforms fail to comply, their local staff can be prosecuted, and companies could lose their protection from being held liable for content that people post.
If anyone in India takes offense to any scene in any show or any movie on any streaming service, they can file a complaint. If a service doesn’t respond or give a satisfactory explanation, the person who complained can appeal to the federal government, which can then compel services to censor, edit, or take down the content.
A new government committee can now make online news publications change, delete, or issue apologies for stories, podcasts, videos, or social media posts — or shut them down entirely. If a platform, streaming service, or website finds a demand unreasonable or unlawful, there are no meaningful ways to push back.
Unless the courts step in, our internet is now in shackles.
When the rules were announced, experts around the country cried foul. The Internet Freedom Foundation, an organization in New Delhi that fights for digital rights, said that the new rules would “fundamentally change the way the internet will be experienced in India” and termed them “unconstitutional.” Editors of digital news operations have said that the new rules “run us down” and have called them “an attempt to kill digital democracy.”
But so far, American technology companies have been silent.
It’s like watching a train wreck while you’re inside the train.
Netflix, Amazon, and WhatsApp declined my requests to comment on the new rules. Facebook and Google did not respond.
A Twitter spokesperson said, “Twitter supports a forward-looking approach to regulation that protects the Open Internet, drives universal access, and promotes competition and innovation. We believe regulation is beneficial when it safeguards citizens’ fundamental rights and reinforces online freedoms. We are studying the updated Intermediary Guidelines and engaging with a range of organizations and entities impacted by them. We look forward to continued engagement with the Government of India and hope a balance across transparency, freedom of expression, and privacy is promoted.”
When I talk to rank-and-file employees at these companies, they seem on edge. There’s a lot of nervous laughter. Some people stammer and trip over their sentences. “I don’t know if I should talk about that,” someone says. Few people want to say anything, and those who do worry about not just losing their jobs for speaking to journalists but also retaliation from powerful politicians. “Honestly, I haven’t been getting much sleep these days,” a Twitter employee recently told me. Another person who works for a social media company told me they were trying to figure out who is at risk of going to jail if the government cracks down.
US tech companies are certainly not saviors. They seem to have a different set of standards for the rest of the world. In India, Twitter lets far-right bigots get away with hate speech and harassment. WhatsApp is full of rumors and lies. And Facebook is Facebook. They have all let us down in countless ways. Still, it would suck if their employees in India became victims of the country’s majoritarian politics and ended up behind bars.
I know that it isn’t just India where things have gone downhill. Over the last four years, I’ve watched the US get swept up in a mass delusion called QAnon that went from the internet into the Capitol itself. But unlike his Indian employees, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t in any danger of going to prison. American democracy itself seems to have prevailed.
What if ours doesn’t?
“I am envious of the fucking First Amendment. I want a First Amendment too.”
I feel envious of the lives that my friends, family, and colleagues in the US lead, and the freedoms they take for granted. I am envious of the fucking First Amendment. I want a First Amendment too.
On a bright spring morning in March, I slumped on the couch after a Washington, DC, NGO declared that India is only “partly free.” When a Swedish institute downgraded the country’s status from a democracy to an “electoral autocracy” weeks later, I took a mental health day from work.
My therapist tells me to engage my “soothing system,” so I cool off by chainsawing video game demons in Doom Eternal. But no matter how many I kill, the demons in my head keep respawning.
I can’t sleep, so I lurk in Slack till the early hours of dawn, watching colleagues on the other side of the world discussing bad tweets, Oprah, Yahoo Answers, and the coronavirus. I am envious of the American news cycle full of stories about crazy people paying millions of dollars for digital art. When someone asks me why I am still up long past midnight, I mumble something about needing to fix my sleep cycle. Then I am back on the train, hurtling me and a billion people faster and faster toward God knows what.
Sometimes, I think about that frigid day in 2015 when Pichai was gushing about India’s potential to thousands of bright young students. I wonder what they are up to, and if they still have the same dreams and aspirations six years later. I wonder if they got jobs, and if they got laid off. I wonder if Pichai, the CEO of a trillion-dollar internet giant, saw what was coming when he was betting on the future of his company.
“I can’t remember a time when simply existing in this country was so stressful,” I wrote on my private Instagram account. “Seriously, how is everyone in the media coping with the constant glut of bad news every single day?” I tweeted last month. “Personally, I’m shot.”
Dozens of people slide into my DMs. Someone tells me to get a pet. Others tell me to subscribe to National Geographic. “Anything that keeps you off hardcore news but is still about the world you live in,” they say.
I don’t subscribe to National Geographic. Instead, I spend more and more time on blogs and YouTube channels discussing gadgets and Apple rumors. There’s something soothing about simply watching someone unbox a shiny new phone and speculating about new features in the next version of macOS. In the last week of March, news about an Apple event briefly cleanses my blood-soaked Twitter timeline. In June, we’ll finally see what the new operating system that powers the new iPhones and Apple Watches will look like. We might even see new smart glasses, overly obsessed fans say.
With each passing year, watching Tim Cook saunter onstage to sell thousand-dollar smartphones has felt more and more like watching a two-hour commercial that changes only slightly each time it runs. But this year, I can’t wait — if only to tune out of the real world for a while. ●