Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad gave a stern message (warning) to Chris Daniels, CEO of WhatsApp, to address India’s concerns when he (Daniels) visited India in August 2018. The minister had put forth his expectations from WhatsApp—appoint a grievance redressal officer in India, set up a corporate entity in India, store local data locally, and develop technologies to trace and curb fake messages. Local WhatsApp presence, it appeared, would make it easy for Indian authorities to reach out and ensure smoother legal compliance from the social messaging app.
Fast forward to February 2019: Indian Parliament’s House Committee on Information Technology summoned Twitter’s “Head of the Organisation”. Twitter, first, declined to depose, citing lack of time. But on February 11, it did send a delegation led by its India head. The committee declined to engage with its India head, saying Twitter’s Indian bosses didn’t have decision-making powers. It has now categorically asked Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, to depose before it on February 25. While WhatsApp was mandated to create its Indian presence, Twitter’s Indian presence has been wilfully spurned.
Taking on Twitter
On February 3, Youth for Social Media Democracy had protested Twitter’s discrimination against right-wing views on its platform. In a jiffy, Anurag Thakur, the committee’s chair, had got the committee’s consent and given Twitter 10 days to depose before the committee.
Ideology is an incredible pair of goggles that changes the way reality appears to the viewer. That notwithstanding, India is not the first country to summon Twitter on such grounds. Dorsey has testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and the Intelligence Committee (along with Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook) in the US on September 5, 2018. Notably, it’s not the first time a digital giant has ignored a parliamentary summon.
Google, for instance, didn’t send a representation before the Intelligence Committee, and without any explanation. Nevertheless, Twitter’s defiance is uncalled for. Unsurprisingly, on February 11, it saw innumerable tweets from Indians about it.
Social media issues
There are, broadly, three core themes pertaining to social media giants that have become teething issues. One is with regards to privacy, ownership of personal data and its usage. Second is of authenticity of information and its source (given their commitment to end-to-end encryption). Third is automated content generation by bots (programmed robots generating and spreading information, good and bad).
Let’s admit that these giants together allow conversations and activities of billions of users every day. Owing to their nature, degree of involvement, and democratic overlap, should we still go about reining these ‘evil spirits’? Or could these platforms, for instance, not participate in shaping our democracies in the 21st century? To answer this, we need to delve deeper into at least three dimensions:
1. Market intruding in the realm of the State
Given the business model of both Facebook (including WhatsApp) and Twitter, as it stands today, it’s to make money from advertisers, political and commercial. In conventional terminology, ‘audience targeting’ is the end product sold to the advertisers. Content generated by conversations is the ‘intermediate product’, which is generated at a fast rate and much of it becomes obsolete quickly. The ‘users’, the people, are essentially the raw material that goes into creating conversations.
Competent governments have been regulating the market, mainly on the raw material or on the end product. Unlike ‘conventional’ businesses, the ‘intermediate product’ of Twitter and Facebook potentially influences making, unmaking, and legitimacy of governments. This is an unprecedented transgression of the Market into the realm of the State.
2. Lack of sound discourse over AI-driven platforms
“It is ill to praise and worse to reprimand in matters you don’t understand,” said Leonardo Da Vinci. Well, most governments have started reprimanding before comprehending. Despite a series of governments and other sovereign bodies asking social media giants to depose, the nature of the discourse has remained pretty rudimentary. Legislators have gotten down to asking industrial era questions in the digital age. This has created ‘false binaries’ in the debate. For instance, a Senate Committee asked Twitter: “Are you an American Company?” The Congress asked Facebook: “Is Twitter the same as what you do?”
Is it possible to tackle fake news without violating end-to-end encryption? An Indian minister was quoted as saying, “It doesn’t take rocket science to locate a fake message…” Well, it may be easier said than done. Similarly, is it possible for algorithms to have intrinsic political biases in an AI-based system? TV debates are full of self-proclaimed experts taking sides about technology they don’t understand even remotely. Surely we need to get much more soundness in our public discourse!
3. Need for an institutional rejig
Why is it that India is taking note of Twitter’s ideological bias just before its general elections? Why is the US government waking up to the cause just before its mid-term elections? It has been a year since Twitter changed its content policy significantly with regards to automation (norms for Twitter bots) and ‘dehumanising speech’. Back then, it did ask stakeholders to send feedback. But governments, apparently, were too arrogant (or ignorant) to engage with the company. Can, for instance, governments not engage proactively in helping Twitter define ‘dehumanising speech’?
Also, why are such companies made to go through a ‘trial’ under video recording and media limelight? Now that these companies deal with billions of people, can we not, more respectably and sanely, include their representations in the legislative processes itself? For instance, why not make Twitter’s global CEO an ex-officio member of relevant committees of India’s Parliament? The devil will be on our side, helping us rather than threatening us.
Democratic processes are set for a major reorientation in the decades to come. That’s apparent from the fomenting concerns over social media from all major democracies. While some countries, like China, can ban a platform they dislike, and build an equally vibrant platform on their own (a remarkable feat to achieve), most democracies would not like to go down that road. Known for their genetic resilience, democracies must come up with innovative ways to engage these giants.
As a country, we must first decide on how we want to treat Twitter (or any other big social media platform). If it’s a pure commercial company, the State must maintain an honourable distance from regulating its ‘intermediate products’. Else, these giants should be treated with dignity, and not as errant ‘vendors’ of services.
Second, Indian Parliament’s committee system is well known to be understaffed and lacking domain expertise. It should not give knee-jerk reactions to some abrupt protest. This displays nothing but institutional nervousness, much to techies’ disdain. Our institutions must stop treating social media companies as a bunch of naughty start-up boys trying to make money by tinkering with public conversations. We must prepare well, so that the ‘techies’ enjoy their time with a committee, rather than sweating (as has been the case with both Mark Zuckerberg and Dorsey).
Last, social media giants can’t selectively claim themselves to be content moderators on one hand and algorithmically-driven machine-led platforms on the other. Recently, Twitter’s Global VP (Pubic Policy) was reported as saying that some ‘false positive’ decisions may occur due to basic ‘human error’. They must come clean on how a decision to suspend or ‘shadow ban’ is arrived at. So far, they have taken refuge under Section 79 of the IT Act, which categorises them as ‘intermediaries’. Now, they need to do much more due diligence here to retain their credibility.
Amit Upadhyay is a freelance Sustainable Development Goals consultant.
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