The world has been riveted for months now by the mass farmers’ strike in India against Narendra Modi’s neoliberal agriculture reforms bills. The passage of these deeply unpopular laws has overlapped with the Modi regime’s intensified crackdown of any and all dissent at home.
But one big part of this story has gone unnoticed: the complicity of Google and other tech platforms in propping up the repressive Modi-BJP government through their huge investments in the regime’s closest allies and biggest beneficiaries.
In particular, Google’s multi-billion dollar investment in the telecommunications company owned by oil and gas billionaire Mukesh Ambani shows how US Big Tech will stop at nothing to make a bigger profit, even if this includes legitimizing a key supporter of the authoritarian-leaning government that is now a target of mass revolt. Ambani is India’s richest man and a strong corporate ally to BJP leadership, perceived by many as a major beneficiary of the hated agricultural reforms.
Farmer protests, Reliance Industries & Mukesh Ambani
In September 2020, the Indian Parliament approved the Indian Agriculture Acts of 2020, also known as the “Farm Bills.” In response, Indian farmers who opposed these bills launched one of the largest protests and series of cross-sectoral strikes that the world has ever seen.
It’s estimated that over 250 million people have participated in protests against the passage of these bills that Indian farmers see as another phase in the continued attack on their livelihoods and an attempt to deregulate the farming industry to allow for greater private-sector control of food distribution. These changes would favor large corporations like Ambani’s Reliance Industries, who would thrive under the free market conditions that these Farm Bills would create.
Protesters in India and among the South Asian diaspora have also held solidarity actions against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and National Registry of Citizens (NRC), which were passed by the Modi-BJP government in the last 18 months. For example, students who organized en masse against the anti-Muslim and anti-poor CAA and NRC laws have joined with Indian farmers as both groups take on the right-wing, repressive Modi government.
Farm bill protestors in India have repeatedly visited the headquarters of Reliance Industries, a global Fortune 500 company owned by India and Asia’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, arguing that his corporation stands to profit greatly from the deregulation of the agricultural sector. Reliance owns Jio Platforms, which is a top telecommunications carrier in India. Ambani’s multi-tentacled telecommunications and digital empire also recently entered into the food and grocery delivery market through their app JioMart.
While Ambani promises not to pursue large-scale corporate farming, protestors remain skeptical that the Farm Bills were not created to benefit the likes of Ambani and other major corporations in India.
First Time Happen in 70 Years— Shriraj Kesariya (@_shriraj) October 26, 2020
Modi ji is the First Indian PM Whose Effigies Burnt In Place of Ravana
Farmers Burnt Effigies of PM Modi & his Crony Corporate Friends Adani and Ambani#Dusshera #RSSVijayaDashami #FarmersProtest #VijayaDashami #ModiHaiToMumkinHai #ModiFailsIndia pic.twitter.com/YofHPrx37L
Google and Mukesh Ambani
Last summer Google made headlines with its announcement that it was investing $4.5 billion in Ambani’s Jio Platforms, giving it a 7.7% stake in the company. Google says it plans to make a $10 billion investment in India over the next few years and partner with Jio Platforms to create an affordable Android phone that would give more Indians internet access.
But Google’s desire to give more Indians internet access is no doubt motivated by its even greater desire to gain a strong foothold in India’s “emerging market” and be poised to sell its products and advertising in these markets. Google’s bread and butter is advertisement sales and growth isn’t possible without new markets to sell to advertisers.
In truth, Google’s massive investment in India is really just an investment in a corporation owned by India’s richest man. It also signals Google’s own desire to grow its business infinitely into new markets. And Google’s big arrival in India at a time when the government has announced major new deregulation laws is no doubt music to the tech company’s ear, as it and other US tech companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying against regulation at home.
Food and trade policy analyst Davinder Sharma told Al-Jazeera: “We are following the American model by bringing corporates into the agriculture.” U.S. tech companies are moving into India at the same time and are participating in this corporate take-over of India’s agriculture industry. In his announcement of Google’s $10m multi-year investment in the India Digitization Fund, India-born Google CEO Sundar Pichai writes that one of the key areas that investment will focus on is “leveraging technology and AI for social good, in areas like health, education, and agriculture.”
Farmers in India are right to be suspicious and to reject the new laws that open up opportunities for corporations like Reliance and Google to further impoverish the lives of Indian farmers.
Google and the Modi government’s repression
In profiting from investment in India while standing on the sidelines and not condemning the Modi government’s human rights abuses, Google and US Big Tech can be seen to be validating the repression of protesters.
Most recently the Modi government has come after youth climate activists like Disha Ravi, who are joining farmers on the front lines of the protests and leading the Indian chapter of the international Fridays for Future movement. After the Modi government made a request in early February to Google for information about IP addresses connected to a Google doc, Ravi and a number of other climate activists were arrested on charges of international conspiracy to “defame the country” and sedition against the Indian government for assembling a social media “toolkit” for climate activists to show solidarity with protesting farmers.
In a recent Intercept article, Naomi Klein reports on the role that international tech companies like Google and Zoom have played in working with the Modi government to surveil climate activists in India. Klein writes of how the toolkit controversy exposes the broader attempts at chilling political dissent in India right now and says “the silent complicity of the tech companies” in cooperating with Modi’s government goes against their own self-image as harbingers of democracy and open societies.
Indeed, if Google truly wants to “democratize” the internet in India it should also condemn the Indian government’s repeated attempts to stifle protest and dissent against Modi and his party by using internet blackouts in Kashmir, during protests over the CAA and NRC in Delhi, and now over the Farm Bills (with over 400 blackouts in the last four years, India is the world leader).
Last month the Modi government demanded that Twitter block the accounts of users who criticized the government and their repression of the farmer strikes and the social media company complied temporarily. After Twitter blocked and then unblocked accounts – including those of activists, celebrities, and an entire news organization – the Indian government threatened employees of Twitter with jail time if they didn’t follow the government’s orders. To do all this, the Modi government invoked a 135 year old colonial-era law used by the British to quell anti-colonial uprisings. Instead of showing concern for these abuses, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has given nothing but public praise to Modi’s “Digital India” initiative at a time when digital censorship of the people and press by his government have intensified rapidly.
Google and Facebook are making these huge investments in Indian corporations at a time when the people of India and Kashmir are engaged in non-stop protest against the Modi-BJP government. Rather than joining the people of India in calls for justice, an end to repression and censorship of the people and the press, and the right to protest, Google offers its support only to Ambani and the corporate class of India who will help Google grow its market while enriching themselves. This international alliance of the tech elite was also seen when Pichai and his wife rubbed elbows with the Indian corporate elite at the wedding of Ambani’s son in 2019.
We’ve seen the attention that tech and social media companies have received during the past two months over their role in the January 6th white supremacist insurrection at the US Capital. Now we must extend the same attention to the role they’ve played in platforming right-wing hate speech in India and around the world, including to the recent concerns raised by Saudi activists about Google’s partnership with their own repressive government.
As we continue to demand tech accountability in the US, we must join with other movements and voices challenging the power and complicity of Big Tech in empowering repressive regimes all over the world – and also question how much all this is simply baked into their business model.