The sovereign not-so-democratic republic of social media giants
India isn’t the only country that requires traceability. When the Attorneys General of the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada met in 2019 to discuss ways to fight online crime, they looked for traceability.
New Delhi: Two different but important developments have taken place recently. The government has asked Twitter about its one-sided views on content. On another front, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) has challenged India’s regulatory laws in the Delhi Supreme Court.
The government has a pretty simple demand from the tech giants. It asked them to “appoint an India-based complainant; a Chief Compliance Officer and a Nodal Officer “to handle complaints. This means that these companies, which have hundreds of millions of users and generate significant revenues, are also establishing a legal entity in India.
Let us examine what is common and different between these two developments. We can start with what is different.
WhatsApp has set its new privacy rules that allow it to aggregate personal information from users and make it available to its customers. Facebook now owns WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger and wants to combine the information of all these users. The Indian government asked Facebook about these rules.
The government is also concerned about the rapid spread of falsified and malicious information that can harm society. The new IT rules contain a traceability clause, according to which social media platforms must identify the “first author of the information” by the authorities if necessary.
WhatsApp says its technology does not allow this and also claims that it violates privacy. However, this view is difficult to accept from a company like Facebook, which is committed to invading privacy and selling personal information. If technology doesn’t allow traceability, as WhatsApp claims, it should find a solution that allows traceability. Traceability has no impact on privacy. The traceability of the creator is similar to putting an address label on a package. We don’t open the package to see what’s inside, we can check who sent it.
India isn’t the only country that requires traceability. When the Attorneys General of the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada met in 2019 to discuss ways to fight online crime, they looked for traceability. One communiqué stated: “Tech companies should incorporate mechanisms into the design of their encrypted products and services that allow governments with appropriate legal authority to access data in a readable and usable format.”
They also said, “We are concerned that companies are deliberately designing their systems to prevent access to content, even in the most serious of crimes. This approach puts citizens and society at risk by severely impairing a company’s ability to identify and respond to the most harmful illegal content. “
Now let’s take a look at the Twitter issue. In this case, the social media giant has taken on the role of sole arbiter for acceptable public content. The question is, can some people at corporate headquarters make decisions about what good content is for the world.
Twitter and Facebook came together to remove incumbent President of the United States, Donald Trump, from their platforms in January 2021. Other world leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel were shocked by this. The question is, can these companies unilaterally decide who is allowed on their platforms and who is not? Twitter adds tampered media tags to content and deliberately removes users with no transparency.
To the extent that they operate, such companies must be held accountable to sovereign authorities. Because of this, the government asked for officials based in India to be appointed. In all democracies, the issue of censorship and freedom of expression is decided through due legal process. Civil society, the judiciary and government agencies follow a law-based process to rule on issues of freedom of expression.
Now let’s look at the common issues with WhatsApp and Twitter controversy in India. We have to remember that India is the largest open market for social media giants. China has blocked them and started their own domestic social media companies. This makes India a critical market for expansion.
Now most of the world’s democracies, including the EU, are questioning and questioning the power of these corporations. Although Twitter and Facebook removed President Trump, President Joe Biden’s administration is also targeting tech companies with antitrust lawsuits while the Senate is grilling them.
India needs to be tough on these companies and enforce the rules that are good for society. If the US and EU can tighten the rules on these companies, so can India. What we as a society should demand is an appropriate, transparent process administered by an authority that can decide what is freedom and what is privacy.
Remember, cellular operators will also share relevant information when the government requests it. Thanks to this, many crimes have been solved. When the government asked everyone who bought a SIM card to show ID, the telecommunications companies resisted. But the government forced it and we can now see the benefits. There is also a due process for wiretapping phones.
Such companies cannot invade privacy and sell personal information, but claim that freedom of expression is violated if they are forced to obey sovereign rules. With due process and law, any government has the right to request information to protect its citizens.
The decision on the protection of privacy and freedom must lie with the national institutions, not with the giants of the social media. Private global corporations must be accountable to sovereign nations.
Pranjal Sharma is the author of India Automated.