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Vol.17 Issue 2 (2021)

Authoritarianism as a Service: India’s Moves to Weaponize Private Sector Content Moderation with the 2021 Information Technology Rules

Michael Karanicolas

A central regulatory challenge related to the spread of Internet access is that the power of mass communication has both been democratized and decentralized into the hands of anyone with a connected device, but also consolidated in a handful of massive tech companies, providing opportunities for unprecedented surveillance and control over the public discourse. This paper argues that the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 pose a severe threat to freedom of expression in India, by providing an avenue for the government to coopt these enormous powers under revised safe harbor provisions that essentially turn private sector content moderation powers into a cudgel to target government critics outside of traditional mechanisms of constitutional scrutiny. While India is not the first country to adopt a “jawboning” strategy against platforms to suit domestic political purposes, this posture goes far beyond what any comparable democratic country has attempted. Ultimately, the paper argues in favor of India’s potential to assume global leadership in fostering robust public accountability in platform governance, but that this requires the country to put human rights and democracy at the center of its reform agenda.


Executive Director, UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy. With sincere thanks to Karthik Rai, Sarthak Wadhwa, and Alessia Zornetta for their invaluable research support, as well as to Bharath Gururagavendran, Jyoti Panday, Ayesha Khan, and Akriti Gaur for their helpful feedback and commentary.

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