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Is big tech aiding a tyranny against India’s climate activists?

As an international conspiracy falls apart against India’s adored climate activist Disha Ravi, big tech is being forced to answer for its role in aiding a national tyranny.

In India, one of the nation’s most affected by climate change, it appears eco-activists are no longer safe to protest.

Last month, Disha Ravi – a 22-year-old climate activist and one of the founders of Fridays for Future – was arrested on conspiracy of waging ‘economic, social, cultural, and regional war against India,’ according to local police.

Sparking outrage from those who know Ravi as a peaceful and lawful campaigner, as well as eco-activists across the globe, the case has been described by the chief minister of Delhi as ‘an unprecedented attack on democracy.’

The country has long been tittering on the edge of becoming yet another Orwellian state, where criticism prompts cries of ‘defamation’ from its nationalist government. Yet, to the delight of campaigners in Delhi, the case against Ravi is predictably crumbling in court.

While the initial indictments levelled against Ravi look set to tail off, there are disturbing reports of ensnarement at the hands of Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook that still need to be answered for.

The arrest of Disha Ravi

This may well be the first time you’re hearing about Ravi’s arrest, but in India the story has made front page news for weeks.

Referred to in Delhi press as the ‘Toolkit Conspiracy,’ the police’s ongoing investigation of Ravi – along with fellow activists Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk – centres on the contents of a social media ‘how to’ guide that Greta Thunberg tweeted in early February.

This ‘toolkit’ was merely a Google Doc drafted together by an ad-hoc of Indian activists to generate support and show solidarity with farmers protesting new corporate policies set to strangle the country’s agriculture industry. For the full picture, check our previous story here.

The list contained a number of quick clicktivism acts one can take to elevate the movement, such as using the hashtags #FarmersProtest and #StandWithFarmers, signing petitions, and writing to local representatives about the issue. You know, the types of acts that take place all day every day on social media networks?

Pointing to the issue’s climate connection, with increased droughts, heatwaves, and flooding already complicating the work of farmers, Ravi has also been personally touched by the issue. Her grandparents were both farmers, and she witnessed first-hand the damage extreme weather can have on crops and people’s livelihoods.

This Google Doc is the key piece of ‘evidence’ responsible for landing Ravi in jail, where she was interrogated by police for over nine days and initially denied bail. She has since returned home, but the indictments levelled at the 22-year-old and her ‘co-conspirators’ still include (but aren’t limited to) ‘sedition, incitement, dissemination, and conspiracy against the state.’

Specifically, the arresting authorities stated that the Google Doc was a ‘call to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India.’ No, unfortunately we’re not kidding.

Lamenting the ‘wounded vanity of governments’ in continuing to go after NGOs and activists for simply questioning state policy, the ruling judge on the case rightly granted Ravi bail and made a forceful condemnation of the Delhi police:

‘Citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic Nation. They cannot be put behind the bars simply because they choose to disagree with the state policies,’ he wrote. As for sharing the toolkit with Thunberg, ‘the freedom of speech and expression includes the right to seek a global audience.’

I bet you’re wondering right about now, just what the tech companies involved have to say on the subject. Deep breaths everyone.

The alarming role of big tech

Since Ravi’s arrest, her private data across several social media sources and text messages have been handed out to be picked over by national media.

Televised panels and tabloids have obsessed over her conversations with Greta, as well as other activists involved in creating the Google Doc. Police meanwhile, have repeatedly insisted Ravi’s decision to delete a WhatsApp group is further proof she was conspiring against the state.

Despite Ravi’s lawyers demanding that private communications not be sent to the press – resulting from seized computers and her phone – the Delhi police is now making demands of several big tech companies to provide further evidence supporting its stance. The response from big tech has been concerning to say the least.

In a case where almost all ‘key evidence’ is derived from everyday digital tools like WhatsApp, Google Docs, private Zoom meetings, and several high profile Tweets, the giants of Silicon Valley have stayed conspicuously quiet.

At the same time, pro-government messaging campaigns are proliferating across the same platforms, with many instances of inciting and hateful content conveniently slipping through the guardrails.

The newest addition to Modi’s information war against activists is only set to make things worse. A draconian ‘digital media law’ is reportedly in the works that will somehow make it illegal for tech companies to refuse cooperation with government. Once passed, any request to remove what it deems to be ‘offensive material’ would theoretically go ahead without question.

Complicit of human rights abuses, it seems, Twitter has already erased posts criticising Modi’s government by the hundreds without explanation, and is culpable for ignoring blatant calls to violence from Nationalist figureheads – alongside Facebook. Worryingly, Delhi police continue to boast that they’re receiving plenty of assistance from Google in digging through Ravi’s private communications, despite pleas from her representation.

As one eye-catching headline stated: ‘Disha Ravi arrest puts privacy of all Google India users in doubt.’

When it comes to Modi’s latest push for evidence, it’s unclear which social media companies have complied and to what extent, but many are referring to corporate policies – which often state they will comply with relevant national laws.

For the giants of Silicon Valley, India under Modi has heralded a harsh moment of truth. The most used platforms in the EU and North America are stanch in their support of human rights, and regulating hateful/harmful material and continue to make progress with each passing year.

However, in India where access to the second largest market in the world depends on bending the rules and bowing to an oppressive regime, many seem to be complying. Strictly speaking, the credibility of these platforms currently rests on a knife-edge.