Global censorship campaign raises alarms

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

Screenshot of what's left of a Lawfare blog post summarizing Reuters' reporting about an Indian tech firm, Appin, and its alleged hack-for-hire operations.

News outlets worldwide have been heeding demands to remove articles about an Indian tech company called Appin and its co-founder, Rajat Khare. Major U.S. outlets are among those that have been successfully pressured to take down their reporting — not just in India, but here as well.

The ordeal raises serious concerns about the global reach of local judges thousands of miles away. It also raises questions about the adequacy of existing legal safeguards to deal with international censorship campaigns arising from countries like India, with governments that don’t respect human rights, let alone press freedom. Even when the government is not directly involved in a censorship campaign, its reputation precedes it, and it would be impossible for news publishers not to take note.

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Multiple news outlets take down stories globally

Everyone from Reuters to the U.K.’s The Sunday Times and outlets in Luxembourg and Switzerland has censored their reporting about Khare and Appin after either lawsuits or takedown letters, according to a report in the Daily Beast. The legal actions often come from an entity calling itself the “Association of Appin Training Centers” or its alleged executives.

Reuters, for example, ran a detailed investigation last November about how Appin functioned as a “hack-for-hire powerhouse.” Khare and Appin vehemently deny the allegations. Reuters published the article despite an injunction, entered in 2022, prohibiting it from reporting anything “defamatory” about the association. Presumably, Reuters believed the article wasn’t defamatory, so the injunction wouldn’t apply.

But within weeks, an Indian court deemed the article “indicative of defamation” — despite failing to identify any fallacies in the report — and ordered it removed from the internet. Reuters complied, taking down the article not just in India but around the world. Even the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine removed the Reuters story. Fortunately, DDoSecrets has stepped up to host the Reuters story and other censored reporting. (Sidenote: It is raising funds so it can continue doing its important work.)

The order doesn’t expressly limit the required takedown to India, which may suggest the Indian court intended it to be removed globally. But Indian courts don’t have global jurisdiction. And a U.S. court would be particularly unlikely to enforce the order, given the nearly insurmountable constitutional presumption against prohibitions on publication, or prior restraints. There’s even a law in the U.S., the SPEECH Act, against honoring defamation judgments from countries that don’t protect free speech.

So why did Reuters remove the story in the U.S. and everywhere else, replacing it with an editor’s note that it stands by its reporting and plans to appeal (a slow process anywhere, but especially in India)? And why have so many others complied with takedown demands?

Some publications, like The New Yorker, have kept their stories up despite reported threats from Khare’s lawyers (which reportedly included the firm Clare Locke, known for representing Dominion Voting Systems in its defamation suit against Fox News), but at least 18 other outlets also either removed articles about Appin outright or erased mentions of Khare.

It can’t just be ignorance of the law. Khare is far from the first rich guy to try to silence critics. Reuters and other censored outlets have plenty of First Amendment lawyers and must know U.S. law is on their side. They also know that Clare Locke succeeded in the Dominion case largely because it had some very helpful evidence to work with, not because it possesses some secret legal magic wand that makes the First Amendment disappear.

Demands for removal leverage risk of deplatforming by tech companies

A closer look at the association’s tactics may provide answers. For one, the order in the Reuters case not only requires the story to be taken down by Reuters but to be deindexed by Google. The association is making sure to let its other targets know about that, including in a recent takedown letter to Ron Deibert of the Citizen Lab (judging from Deibert’s X post about the letter, he’s unlikely to take down his article). Others have received similar letters.

Perhaps the message is that resistance is futile: There’s no point in paying lawyers to fight takedown demands if, at the end of the day, Google can make the articles invisible anyway.

But another line from the letter to Deibert stood out even more: It claims the “article is contemptuous not only to the Plaintiffs concerned however it is absolutely derogatory to the entire Indian Nation.” The article says nothing about India in its entirety.

Further nationalistic language appears in correspondence to Meta, attached to court documents filed in the Reuters case. Those letters, from the association's Indian counsel, baselessly accuse the journalists behind the Reuters story (Christopher Bing, Zeba Siddiqui, and Raphael Satter) of a “serious unusual espionage operation” and “a well-planned modus operandi to malign Ruling Indian Government,” demanding Meta therefore block their WhatsApp accounts.

According to court documents, the association also sent demands to block the journalists’ accounts on LinkedIn and Naukri, an Indian platform they allegedly used to contact potential sources. Fortunately, neither LinkedIn nor Meta appears to have complied to date, but the threat of deindexing or deplatforming is a powerful cudgel. Tools like WhatsApp are essential for journalists these days.

Veiled threats have an impact regardless of credibility

The allusions to the nation of India and its current rulers in legal correspondence about disputes between private companies also may serve another purpose.

The administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is infamous for its crackdowns on speech and the press, especially online. India, for example, managed to “tame Twitter” with its “hostage” law, requiring social media companies to keep representatives in the country for authorities to arrest if their employers misbehave. That law may not bind news outlets, but it doesn’t have to. They need to have personnel in India if they want to cover news there.

Lawyers in the suit against Reuters have already asked for the three reporters to be jailed. They’re not based in India, but might authorities arrest someone else in their place? News outlets may not want to find out the hard way, especially if they’re under the impression that they’ve offended the “Ruling Indian Government.”

We’re unaware of any indication that the Modi administration takes criticism of Appin or Khare personally or would even care at all. The claim that the Reuters article maligns the current government is perplexing given that the reporting focuses on events predating Modi’s 2014 inauguration. As for Khare, he’s now an Antiguan national living in Switzerland.

Nonetheless, perhaps the association’s intent in invoking the “Ruling Indian Government” is to issue a not-so-subtle reminder, to anyone considering flouting its demands, of who they may be messing with. And it seems to be working. Bluff or not, news outlets may be afraid to call it.

American legal protections can’t stop foreign censorship tactics

While the U.S. may not always be the global leader in press freedom it thinks it is, its legal protections against foreign censorship orders are relatively strong. But that may not matter if others follow Appin’s playbook.

U.S. outlets know the First Amendment can’t protect them from stories being suppressed, or reporters deplatformed, by tech companies at the behest of foreign courts. It also provides no solace against veiled threats, however noncredible they may be, to sic authoritarian regimes on journalists.

The aforementioned SPEECH Act was intended largely to stop U.S. courts from enforcing judgments entered under the U.K.’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws. That’s helpful when U.S. outlets are primarily worried about legal risk back home. But in cases arising from countries ruled by governments like Modi’s, there may be larger concerns than that.

And if the U.S. is going to continue its partnerships with such countries, then policymakers here need to think seriously about how to address those concerns.

The Biden administration has maintained that it won’t “lecture” India about its domestic human rights problems (although recent reporting says alleged Indian assassination plots have “complicated” the U.S.-India relationship). But censorship emanating from Indian courts is not a domestic issue when it’s stopping U.S. citizens from reading important news about a U.S. “strategic partner.” Whether or not India’s government had any direct involvement with this latest campaign to silence the press, it may have created the climate that enabled it.

If the U.S. insists on partnering with censorial regimes, then policymakers need to start thinking seriously about the consequences for free speech back home, and the administration needs to do more to stand up for American values than empty talk. Otherwise who is going to tell us about the next hack-for-hire operation — or assassination plot, for that matter?

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