Even so, a little more than two weeks after publishing its investigation into Appin Technology, on December 5, Reuters complied with the Indian court’s injunction, removing its story. Soon, in a kind of domino effect of censorship, others began to take down their own reports about Appin Technology after receiving legal threats based on the same injunction. SentinelOne, the cybersecurity firm that had helped Reuters in its investigation, removed its research on an Appin Technology subsidiary’s alleged hacking from its website. The Internet Archive deleted its copy of the Reuters article. The legal news site Lawfare and cybersecurity news podcast Risky Biz both published analyses based on the article; Risky Biz took its podcast episode down, and Lawfare overwrote every part of its piece that referred to Appin Technology with Xs. WIRED, too, removed a summary of Reuters’ article in a news roundup after receiving Appin Training Centers’ threat.
Aside from the injunction that Appin Training Centers has used to demand publishers censor their stories, Appin cofounder Rajat Khare has separately sent legal threats to another collection of news outlets based on a court order he obtained in Switzerland. Two Swiss publications have publicly noted that they responded to court orders by removing Khare’s name from stories about alleged hacking. Others have removed Khare’s name or removed the articles altogether without a public explanation, including the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the UK’s Sunday Times, several Swiss and French news outlets, and eight Indian ones.
“This is an organization throwing everything against the wall, trying to make as many allegations in as many venues as possible in the hopes that something, somewhere sticks,” says one person at a media outlet that has received multiple legal threats from people connected to Appin Technology, who declined to be named due to the legal risks of speaking out. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately, in India, it’s worked.”
Even before the EFF, Techdirt, MuckRock, and DDoSecrets began to push back against that censorship, some had immediately resisted it. The New Yorker, for instance, had mentioned a subsidiary of Appin Technology and Rajat Khare in a feature about India’s hacker-for-hire industry in June of last year. It was sued by Appin Training Centers, but has kept its piece online while the lawsuit proceeds. (The New Yorker and WIRED are both published by Condé Nast.) Ronald Deibert, a well-known security researcher and founder of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, a group that focuses on exposing hackers who target members of civil society, had also mentioned Appin Technology in a blog post. Deibert received and refused Appin Training Centers’ takedown threat, posting a screenshot of its email to his X feed in December along with his response: seven middle-finger emojis.
As the backlash to the censorship of reporting on Appin Technology’s alleged hacking snowballs, however, it may now be going beyond a few cases where Appin Training Centers’ and Rajat Khare’s censorship attempts have failed, says Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, who has written about the censorship campaign. Instead, it may be backfiring, he says, particularly for Appin Technology cofounder Rajat Khare. “It does seem like a sort of dubious strategy to be stirring this up now, and I do wonder if he is starting to regret that given the coverage it’s getting,” says Stern. “You could easily see that it’ll do more reputational harm than good for Khare and for Appin.”
MuckRock’s Morisy says that attention is exactly the intention of his move, along with Techdirt and the EFF, to put a spotlight on the legal threats they’ve received. “It’s leveraging the Streisand effect to an extent. But also just finding ways to push back,” says Morisy. “There needs to be a cost for groups that are trying to silence journalists.”