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India pushes back against tech ‘colonisation’ by internet giants

[NEW DELHI] In India, US companies dominate the internet. Facebook's WhatsApp is the most popular app on phones. Virtually every smartphone runs on Google's Android system.

For some Indian political leaders, it is as if their nation — which was ruled by Britain for a century until 1947 — is being conquered by colonial powers all over again.

And they are determined to stop it.

Regulators and ministers across India's government have declared their intention to impose tough new rules on the technology industry. Collectively, the regulations would end the free rein that US tech giants have long enjoyed in this country of 1.3 billion people.

The proposals include European-style limits on what big internet companies can do with users' personal data, a requirement that tech firms store certain sensitive data about Indians only within the country, and restrictions on the ability of foreign-owned e-commerce companies to undercut local businesses on price.

The policy changes unfolding in India would be the latest to crimp the power — and profits — of US tech companies, and they may well contribute to the fracturing of the global internet.

Although India does not want to go as far as China, which has cut off its internet from the global one, officials admire Beijing's tight control over citizens' data and how it has nurtured homegrown internet giants like Alibaba and Baidu by limiting foreign competition. At the same time, regulators do not want to push out the US internet services that hundreds of millions of Indians depend on.

For Google, Facebook, Amazon and others, India's moves would curb a lucrative business avenue. India had become the companies' next frontier for growth.

India's new policies are still a work in progress, with competing government agencies jousting with foreign and domestic lobbyists and policy advocates to shape them.

But new restrictions are definitely coming, said officials and industry executives involved in the process.

The country's Supreme Court declared last summer that Indians have a fundamental right to privacy and pushed parliament to pass a data privacy law. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have embraced an India-first economic nationalism to address weak job growth. Law enforcement authorities are also demanding more legal tools to extract private customer data from WhatsApp, Facebook and financial firms.

"We don't want to build walls, but at the same time, we explicitly recognise and appreciate that data is a strategic asset," said Aruna Sundararajan, the nation's secretary of telecommunications.