Internet firms to fight misinformation in India while respecting rights, says senior US official
The Joe Biden administration seeks to work with the Indian government and Internet businesses to ensure that freedom of expression is respected while combating the spread of misinformation, a senior US official has told lawmakers.
The US believes that the best response to misinformation is truthful information, said Scott Busby, the acting principal deputy assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour while testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia, and Non-Proliferation on Wednesday.
"Misinformation has cost lives in India and so has lack of access to independent information. Prior to the pandemic, misinformation led to several instances of 'cow-lynchings' in which hooligans, inflamed by social media, assaulted people suspected of harming cattle," he said.
At the onset of the pandemic in India, some leveraged social media to blame Muslims for the spread of Covid-19, Busby told the lawmakers. "The government levied content restrictions and demanded content takedowns of social media companies negatively impacting access to information and freedom of expression," Busby claimed.
Throughout South Asia, there have been constraints on liberties such as freedom of expression and association, he said.
"In India, authorities tell US businesses to block social media content, including posts relating to public health, and charge or arrest journalists for the same, at the height of the country's Covid-19 surge when up-to-date information is needed most."
India's enforcement of its Foreign Contribution Regulation Act resulted in the deregistration of over 1,500 civil society organisations and the closure of such prominent organizations as Amnesty International India, he claimed.
"As large democracies, the United States and India have a special responsibility towards combating misinformation with a rights-respecting approach. We seek to work with the Government of India and Internet businesses to respect freedom of expression while combatting dis- and misinformation," Busby said.
Observing that information manipulation, whether it is through media capture, censorship, or disinformation campaigns is a global problem, he alleged China actively seeks political, economic, and strategic advantage, including through the spread of propaganda and disinformation and silencing critical voices.
"In the Indo-Pacific region, disinformation has profoundly changed how people vote, obtain healthcare and treat vulnerable members of minority groups. Responsible governments must not suppress factual information nor permit their officials to contribute to the spread of misinformation," Busby said.
In Bangladesh, the restrictive Digital Security Act infringes upon the exercise of freedom of expression both online and offline and targets civil society, media, political opposition, and religious minorities.
Government measures in Bangladesh restrict freedom of expression and authorize the criminalization of defamation and slander, offences most other democracies consider civil infractions while in Nepal, regulations governing the media and online environment carry criminal penalties that trigger self-censorship, the official said.
Bhutanese Internet has flourished with news on blogs and social media, though posters risk defamation lawsuits and national security charges filed against them and actively self-censor, Busby said.