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Tech Giants Miss An Opportunity in India

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it on weekdays.

While their country is hit by the world’s worst coronavirus crisis, Indians are using Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and shared documents online to gather medical aid and hold their elected leaders accountable for their mistakes.

But the tech companies mostly leave Indians to fend for themselves.

This is the message from Mishi Choudhary, an attorney who works to defend digital rights in India and the United States. Choudhary told me that she is angry about what she thinks is the failure of both Indian officials and the mostly American internet companies that dominate the country.

Tech companies, she said, should do far more to validate coronavirus information that is spreading like wildfire on their websites and to stand up against Indian officials trying to silence or intimidate people because of them have spoken online.

A consistent theme in this newsletter has been that a handful of tech companies have power on a par with that of governments. Choudhary wondered what the point of having so much power if big internet companies don’t use it when it really counts.

“If you want to squeeze money out of our market, you better stand up for our people too,” Choudhary told me.

It is difficult for American tech companies operating in different countries to figure out how to reconcile local laws and citizens’ preferences with basic human rights such as freedom of expression. It’s not clear what to do as more countries – including India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi – try to control what goes on online, both for valid reasons and to manipulate or restrict their citizens.

The internet superpowers deserve credit for refusing to comply with persistent government restrictions. But Choudhary is right that in India’s current crisis, American tech stars aren’t pushing back much, trying to avoid attention.

She chose two things to do. The first is to review information that Indians are sharing online. People spend hours online connecting those in need of oxygen or other medical assistance with those who can help. Indians are also trying to find out when these reports are inaccurate and identify profiteers who are selling medical supplies at grossly inflated prices or who they don’t actually have.

Choudhary asked why internet companies aren’t helping to verify all of this information. “If volunteers do that, the platforms themselves can certainly do it,” said Choudhary.

Finding out what is true and what is not online is never easy, especially in a crisis where information is spreading quickly. The problem is that internet companies often don’t try very hard, especially in countries outside of the US and Western Europe.

Second, Choudhary said that companies like Facebook and Twitter are too complacent and mysterious as the Indian government suppresses dissent online.

The Modi government has requested that Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter retrieve posts it deems misleading or dangerous. In some cases, doctor photos of corpses or other incorrect information have been cited online that could cause panic. However, in some cases, these posts appear to be true and are singled out because they question the official Lowball death toll or criticize Indian leaders for their pandemic response.

Twitter and Facebook usually state that when they operate in countries around the world, they are complying with government regulations that they believe to be valid. And in India, companies state that they will post any government request to delete or suspend posts unless told to remain silent.

But Choudhary said that American internet companies are not consistently telling those concerned or the public why certain posts were singled out.

She said this made it difficult for Indians and organizations like her, the Software Freedom Law Center, to know when the Indian government was trying to stop online fraud or misinformation and when it was trying to protect itself from criticism.

While we were talking, Choudhary stopped a few times to apologize for being emotional. She said she was overwhelmed by the number of people in India asking for help finding a hospital bed for a loved one or airlifting a patient for medical treatment from the country.

She is furious about what she believes are fatal flaws in the control of the coronavirus by powerful leaders in the country she was born in. And she can’t believe that in her current home, the United States, powerful tech companies that promise to give everyone a voice watch the Modi government stop Indians from speaking out.

  • Google and Microsoft made Bonkers dollars: The pandemic continued to be surprisingly good for these two companies. (They did pretty well before 2020, too.) On the flip side, some companies, including Netflix and Pinterest, that benefited from being glued to screens are now showing evidence that we are getting a little out of the online habits withdraw.

  • A look into the lives of often invisible women: In Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, domestic workers in affluent households – most of them women – make TikTok videos to discuss their lives or abuse by their employers. “It’s kind of a hotline,” one woman said to Louise Donovan. The report is a collaboration between the New York Times and the nonprofit newsroom The Fuller Project.

  • Where are my damn keys ?! My colleague Brian X. Chen (and his dogs) are fans of Apple’s new AirTag tracking devices, which can be used to locate things like house keys, backpacks, or pets.

Please give the person who directs the TV camera footage (with finger snapshots and EXTREMELY LOVE) an Oscar for a 1997 Oscar win. My colleague Farhad Manjoo had a perfect explanation of why this clip is so amazing.

(A warning that there is a non-family friendly language.)

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