IN 1989, the International Science Policy Foundation hosted a three-day symposium on “Scientific Temper and National Development” in Delhi. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi—whose hand-picked team of technocrats were promising messianic solutions to India’s fledgling IT sector—delivered the opening remarks. All technology, Gandhi declared, was “value neutral.” Those who opposed technology transfer from the West simply did not understand that it could be “injected with proper values” at home.
The prime minister’s words generated much controversy, with one commentator in the Economic and Political Weekly accusing his government of social engineering through technology. In his rush to embrace digital development, Gandhi had unwittingly courted the idea that the digital medium was somehow especially pliable to what the Indian government perceived as core national values.
For the better part of two decades, this idea has remained largely unchallenged, and in their relentless march on the digital frontier, government agencies have tried to capture the internet, too. A consultation paper on “Over-The-Top” services—or OTTs, an umbrella term for all internet applications—released in March by India’s telecom watchdog is only the latest attempt by the Indian state to satisfy its regulatory appetite. In it, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or TRAI, suggests that OTTs have been “overwhelming” telecom service providers, presenting “cybersecurity threats,” and could even “cause disturbance and affect the social fabric.” TRAI predicts that YouTube and other video content hosts will clog India’s poor network infrastructure within five years, even as applications such as WhatsApp may be used to foment mischief, not unlike how messages were circulated across Bengaluru in 2012 “targeting students from the North East.”