Google and Facebook declined to comment beyond filings made by the industry groups to which they belong. Twitter, which is jousting with India’s parliament over claims that it suppresses right-wing content, said in a statement that it hoped that any changes to the rules would “strike a careful balance that protects important values such as freedom of expression.”
India began signaling last year that it planned to impose tough rules on the tech industry, ending the free rein that American tech giants have long enjoyed in this country of 1.3 billion people, which has been the world’s fastest-growing market for new internet users. Among other things, officials discussed European-style limits on what big internet companies can do with users’ personal data.
The newest proposals on internet content were introduced at a private meeting with tech companies in December. They were on track for quick passage until the details leaked to The Indian Express, a local newspaper, which prompted the government to invite broader feedback.
Officials have offered little public explanation for the proposals, beyond a desire to curb the kind of false rumors about child kidnappers that spread on WhatsApp a year ago and that incited angry mobs to kill two dozen innocent people. That wave of violence has since subsided.
The coming national election has added urgency to the proposals. India’s Election Commission, which administers national and state elections, is considering a ban on all social media content and ads aimed at influencing voters for the 48 hours before voting begins, according to an internal report obtained by the news media. To buttress its legal authority to order such a ban, the commission wrote to the I.T. ministry last week asking it to amend the new rules to specifically prohibit online content that violates election laws or commission orders.
One of the biggest cheerleaders for the new rules was Reliance Jio, a fast-growing mobile phone company controlled by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest industrialist. Mr. Ambani, an ally of Mr. Modi, has made no secret of his plans to turn Reliance Jio into an all-purpose information service that offers streaming video and music, messaging, money transfer, online shopping, and home broadband services.
In a filing last week, Reliance Jio said the new rules were necessary to combat “miscreants” and urged the government to ignore free-speech protests. The company also said that encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp, “although perceivably beneficial to users, are detrimental to national interest and hence should not be allowed.”