Recently the social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter have once again come into conflict with the Government of India (GOI). In February, GOI released new IT Rules, 2021, which made it essential for these social media platforms to opt for a larger grievance redressal mechanism, as per which these platforms have to appoint
- A Resident Grievance Officer
- A Chief Compliance Officer
- A Nodal contact person
The GOI gave 3 months to these platforms in order to comply with these new guidelines and make required structural changes. However, these platforms have asked for more time.
WhatsApp V/S GOI
One day prior to completion of this period i.e., 25 May 2021, WhatsApp, an instant messaging app, filed a petition in Delhi High Court against GOI’s new policy. It stated that these new guidelines will hamper the privacy of consumers, as the government under these new guidelines can ask these platforms to trace the first originator of mischievous messages and posts in relation to the sovereignty of India, the security of the state, relations with foreign states, rape, etc.
Further, WhatsApp says, in order to comply with this ‘traceability’ clause under new guidelines it has to break or dilute its end-to-end encryption model, which is a direct attack on consumers’ fundamental rights to privacy and free speech under Article 19 of the Indian constitution.
Here the question arises who is the true custodian of the fundamental rights of Indian citizens? No doubt it is the Supreme Court of India. But in this case between GOI and WhatsApp, the villain seems to be GOI, and WhatsApp, a private entity, is the savior of FRs of Indian citizens.
WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, the giant social media platform, the same company that has been accused of influencing the 2016 US presidential elections by sharing its user’s data with Cambridge Analytica. This data sharing and leakage of data are not confined to Facebook only, last month LinkedIn lost data of 500 million users, you might be one of them.
This time judiciary might rule in favor of WhatsApp saving FRs of Indian citizens (if it finds violating) but can we truly trust these platforms? No, they can’t be trusted. These platforms operate in an unregulated virtual world that has real-life impacts and profit is their primary motive. Any technology left unregulated might do big, irreversible harm to society especially when it has two shades of color i.e., good and evil.
Moreover, looking at GOI as a villain will be a big mistake, remember some clauses in these new guidelines might seem problematic and controversial but not the whole guideline. Further, for challenging such clauses we already have mechanisms that WhatsApp is using.
Despite going into an argument about who is right in this particular case, we have to look at the broader picture.
Threat to Democracy: if these platforms are left unregulated, it may take away the very Democracy on the basis of which we demand fundamental rights. But how? it can be understood with a simple example, Facebook just like any other platform works on algorithms, whose primary function is to assess the behavior of an individual and feed him/her whatever he/she likes.
Now suppose I support XYZ political party and often like its post then there are high chances that it will only show me content depicting good things about XYZ party. This can substantially influence my voting in the next elections. Hence, a rich person with dictatorial behavior might come to power.
I agree, this example seems far-fetched and very extreme in nature. But this is to make you aware, to what extent this technology may harm our society.
New Institutions: India needs new institutions in order to regulate this virtual world where these platforms operate. But kind of institutions?
- Apart from these giant platforms, their a huge number of applications, and websites whose only function is to collect data. For example, a small chess gaming app or fitness app, or to-do list app, they hide their primary objective (of data collection) behind these services. Such a data breach has the potential to threaten national security of the nation. Hence, we need a dedicated government authority to regulate and assess the function of each and every such application and website.
- One of the main reasons why these platforms are able to collect and sell data is user’s inability to evaluate Terms and Conditions (T&C) before opting for their services. Well, it is no the fault of the user, these T&Cs are so complicated to understand that legal personnel will also think twice before going for it. Therefore, we need trustable institutions (Public, Private, or NGOs) to evaluate these T&C and them available in an understandable form to the general public.
- India also needs a grievance redressal system which users which one primary objective of these new guidelines. This is a welcoming step.
Awareness Campaign and People-Oriented check and balance: GOI and Civil societies have to run aggressive campaigns to make people aware of the potential harm these platforms can do and develop a people-oriented check and balance environment. For example- if an individual find some fake information or some disturbing video then he/she can inform the concerned authority of the respective platform or concerned government authority.
However, all of these solutions have to come without hampering the good side of this 21st-century technology. These platforms have provided space for sharing knowledge, created less direct and more indirect employment for so many people, for example, a woman who is good at cooking can now upload her recipe on these platforms and can become financially independent. Further, her videos can help a young boy/girl or newly married woman who has the first time left his/her home and doesn’t know how to cook.
Moreover, good laws or regulation does not come in a day instead it takes years of discussion, debates, and continuous improvement. Further, the challenge of regulating this latest technology is not confined to India, but the whole world is grappling with it.