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At New America Foundation Event on India, Panelists Talk of ‘Digital Colonization’ by U.S. and China

Liana Sowa

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Screenshot from the webinar

October 1, 2020 – When it comes to social media, India is currently in a “two-house race” between the United States and China, explained India expert Madhulika Srikumar at New America on Wednesday.

Tiktok and Facebook have been big players in this race, each attracted to India’s large audience base.

Srikumar, an attorney formerly with the Cyber Initiative at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, cited two statistics. First, one-third of TikTok’s users were Indian, before the app was banned in June by the Indian government. Second, if India’s Facebook audience were a country, it would be the fourth largest in the world.

She explained the recent trend of Chinese and U.S. companies each investing in Indian companies.

New American CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter said in response, “When I hear you Madhu, all I can think of is digital colonization.”

Slaughter stressed that it was vital we don’t have a world where states lock down their internet and asserted that the world would be a better place if there was more competition and if companies had to be more open with their policies

“Our institutions for holding power accountable are still from the analog age,” Said Rebecca MacKinnon, founding director of New America’s Ranking Digital Rights project, adding that there’s nothing in our law that could prevent Tiktok from becoming a vehicle for hate speech.

Slaughter blamed the platforms, claiming that platforms were publishers wielding great political power who were responsible for polarization and declining trust.

She pointed to a future Biden-Harris administration, and projected that if elected, it would provide a new vision for internet policy by working with a number of other countries, including Europe, to adopt global standards for a free internet. This consortium would insist that companies abide by such rules.

When asked whether the UN could play a role, Slaughter said that it could, but it would need to have strong member support since “the current U.S. government has distain for non-US institutions.” The United Nations would have difficulty putting regulations in place with one of it’s biggest members not being supportive.

MacKinnon agreed that UN involvement would be complicated. For the past decade, there’s been a fight brewing over who sets standards for the tech community and for global technologies.

Srikumar, in turn, appealed for greater resources to flesh out what exactly an open internet means, as well as a move to divorce content from gatekeepers.

Joshua Keating, senior editor of Slate moderated the webinar.

See also “The Privacy Negotiators: The Need for U.S. Tech Companies to Mediate Agreements on Government Access to Data in India,” by Madhulika Srikumar on New America

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