Google’s chief executive officer Sundar Pichai’s recent statement that the free and open internet is under attack around the world needs to be taken seriously. In an interview with BBC on Monday, Pichai pointed out that many countries are restricting the flow of information. They are subjectively defining what “free speech” is and drawing rigid boundaries. Coming as it does from one of the world’s largest tech companies with annual revenues of over $182 billion, there is cause for concern. Does one also detect a note of desperation as Pichai urged “countries with strong democratic traditions and values” to stand up against the fragmenting of the internet?
Though he did not take names, the Google chief’s obvious targets are China and India. The two together account for half the internet-connected world, and both have seen huge growth in recent years in internet-driven technology. China’s internet restrictions are well known. It runs the world’s most sophisticated firewall, and the government monitors all content passing through the internet. More recently, India has joined the bandwagon with a sweeping set of information technology rules aimed at controlling the digital medium. These require quick take-downs of posts that the government sees as harmful or violating ‘national interests’ and make it mandatory for tech companies like Facebook and Google to identify the originator of messages.
China has always been a censor of the free internet. But the significance of Pichai’s warning is because India, a votary of freedom, is unfortunately going down the same road. As many as 20 OTT companies and news networks have challenged the new IT rules in different High Courts. As the old legacy media have been bottled up in layers of controls, the internet, which spawned the digital medium, became the voice of free communication. It has not only allowed uncensored news flow, but also facilitated the growth of e-commerce and entrepreneurship. It is therefore unfortunate that India, which has contributed one of the biggest pools of talent to the digital world, is now seeking to roll back Internet freedom. Pichai’s warnings need careful consideration.