In India, where the country is experiencing a new wave of social media activism, one of the main concerns is whether the new era of open government will lead to the same kind of crackdown on freedom of speech.
On Thursday, the government of India approved a bill to make it mandatory for government-owned social media platforms to delete content that “is considered harmful to the public interest”.
The move follows months of pressure from the opposition to delete more than a million fake news articles and commentaries posted by opposition politicians in the run-up to the general election in 2019.
It is part of a broader crackdown on social media that has seen a host of Indian media sites shut down, and many of them shut down completely.
In an interview with The Hindu, a spokesperson for the Indian Information and Broadcasting Ministry (I&B) said that the legislation was needed to prevent content that could be “used to undermine public order”.
“This will ensure that the Government of India can not misuse its position to silence those who disagree with the Government on social issues, and in particular the issue of the Indian flag, which is an important symbol of the country,” the spokesperson said.
The move comes at a time when India is in a transition to a digital age, where people are increasingly using technology to interact with the world, not just with friends and family.
“The new era has brought about a new openness, openness to the common man,” said Sankar Prakash, a former minister of state for information technology and internet, in an interview on the sidelines of a digital technology conference in New Delhi.
“But it has also brought about some of the worst excesses in terms of information warfare that we have seen in India, and I think this is the first step towards a realisation of the threat that it poses to the Indian democracy.”
The bill would allow social media sites to remove content deemed harmful to “public order” and “national security” if it has been “considered harmful to public order” or “national defense”.
But critics of the bill argue that this will amount to a license to censor the Indian nation’s social media, and the government is not providing a clear definition of what that means.
“This is not an adequate framework for the protection of the right to freedom of expression, which we have witnessed in other countries,” said Rajesh Bhardwaj, a journalist and senior fellow at the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR).
“We have seen it in Pakistan, we have heard it in India.”
In recent years, a number of controversial stories have been posted on social networking sites, including those of the alleged gang rape of a Delhi student, and anti-government protests in the country’s capital, New Delhi, that erupted over a controversial plan to build a $1.9 billion mosque in the heart of the city.
In a recent blog post, the Indian news portal The Hindu said the new legislation was a response to a new set of laws passed by India’s parliament in 2016 that criminalise “false or misleading information” about the country and impose fines of up to $1,000 for anyone who publishes such material.
The bill was passed by a large margin, with all three opposition parties voting in favour of it, and India’s ruling Congress Party (Congress) abstaining.
The Hindu article said that if the law were to be adopted, “it could lead to censorship of news and commentary by the state, including through the blocking of internet services, websites and mobile applications”.
The government has also warned of possible repercussions if the legislation is not passed.
“If this bill becomes law, it would become the first such law passed in the history of India, a landmark moment in the evolution of the state and would potentially create a situation of censorship of the internet, where it would be hard for Indian citizens to access the internet,” the statement read.
“There could be severe consequences for the country, if this is enacted in its current form.”
But, for many, the bill is a first step in the right direction.
“We are moving in the correct direction,” said Ashish Jha, a 23-year-old software engineer who was involved in a similar campaign against fake news.
“But there are still so many other steps that we need to take,” he said.
“First we need more tools to help people fight back.
I’m not sure that the government can be held responsible for such efforts, but at least they should not be in charge of such things.
We need to get people talking and to get them involved.
We can’t just ignore the internet.”
India’s opposition, which has long campaigned against what they see as a corrupt and authoritarian system, are also taking a hard line against the proposed bill.
“I am a big fan of the Internet but I don’t believe in the