New Delhi: Two different but important developments have taken place recently. The government has questioned Twitter for its unilateral views on content. On another front, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) has challenged India’s regulatory laws in Delhi High Court.
The government has a fairly simple demand from the tech giants. It has asked them to appoint “an India based grievance redressal officer; a chief compliance officer and a nodal officer” to address complaints. It implies that these companies which have hundreds of millions of users and earn significant revenue also establish a legal entity in India.
Let us examine what is common and distinct between these two developments. We can begin with what is different.
WhatsApp has declared its new privacy rules that will allow it to merge personal information of users and provide it to its clients. Facebook owns WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger now and wants to combine the information of all these users. Government of India has questioned Facebook over these rules.
The government is also concerned about the rapid spread of fake and malicious information which can harm society. The new IT rules include a traceability clause that requires social media platforms to locate “the first originator of the information” by authorities, if required.
WhatsApp says that its technology does not allow this and also claims that this hurts privacy. However, this view is difficult to accept from a company like Facebook, which has made a business of invading privacy and selling personal data. If the technology does not allow traceability as WhatsApp claims, then it should find a solution which can enable traceability. Traceability does not impact privacy. Traceability of the creator is similar to posting an address label on a package. We don’t open the package to see what is inside but can check who sent it.
India is not the only country to demand traceability. When Attorney Generals of UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada met in 2019 to discuss ways of countering online crime, they sought traceability. A communiqué said, “Tech companies should include mechanisms in the design of their encrypted products and services whereby governments, acting with appropriate legal authority, can obtain access to data in a readable and usable format.”
They also said, “We are concerned where companies deliberately design their systems in a way that precludes any form of access to content, even in cases of the most serious crimes. This approach puts citizens and society at risk by severely eroding a company’s ability to identify and respond to the most harmful illegal content.”
Now let us look at the Twitter issue. In this case, the social media giant has taken on the role of being the sole arbiter of what is acceptable public content. The question is, can a few individuals sitting in a corporate headquarter decide what is good content for the world?
Twitter, Facebook came together to remove the sitting President of United States Donald Trump from their platforms in January 2021. Other heads of state in the world like Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel were shocked by it. The question is, can these companies decide unilaterally who is allowed and who is not allowed on their platforms? Twitter adds tag of manipulated media on content and removes users arbitrarily without transparency.
At the scale that they operate, such companies must be held accountable to sovereign authorities. For this reason, the government asked for appointment of India based officers. In all democracies, the issue of censorship and freedom of expression is decided by a due process of law. Civil society, judiciary and government agencies follow a law-based process to decide on issues of freedom of expression.
Now let us look at the issues that are common between WhatsApp and Twitter controversies in India. We must remember that India is the biggest open market for social media giants. China has blocked them and created its own domestic social media companies. So, India becomes a critical market to expand.
Now most democracies in the world including in EU are questioning and challenging the might of these companies. Even though Twitter and Facebook removed President Trump, the government of President Joe Biden is also attacking the technology companies with anti-trust lawsuits, while the Senate is grilling them.
India has to be tough on these companies and enforce the rules which are good for society. If US and EU can tighten the rules of these companies so can India. What we should demand as a society is a proper, transparent process managed by an authority which can decide what is freedom and what is privacy.
Remember, that mobile telecom service operators also share relevant information when government asks for it. Lakhs of crimes have been solved thanks to it. When the government had demanded that every SIM card buyer should submit an identity document, the telecom companies had resisted. But the government forced them and we can see the benefits now. There is a due process in place for tapping phones as well.
It cannot be that such companies invade privacy and sell personal data but allege that freedom of expression is being violated when forced to follow sovereign rules. With due process and laws, each government has a right to demand information to protect citizens.
The decision of privacy and freedom expression must lie with national institutions not with social media giants. Private global companies must be accountable to sovereign nations.