Every time I browse through products I like, ads from Instagram or Youtube never forget to remind me about how technology has become so intrusive. It doesn’t end there. To keep me hooked to their apps, they keep sending friend requests of random people (I’m referring to the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma), notifications and anything that will increase Facebook’s business and my “screen time.”
Amidst all of this, I think about the time 7 years ago when I heard scattered voices from around the world screaming about regulating the Internet. My eyes popped out and my brain had rejected that as another “crazy, ridiculous proposition.” during the time. But, in the world we live in today, Internet Regulation seems pretty plausible with all the reprehensible stuff we see on the Internet. That’s not to say that the Internet is totally bad. It has given us so many good stories, innovations, solutions, beautiful people, opportunities and opened us up to the treasure of information it can offer in real-time.
But, with so much noise around Internet regulation and governments also gearing up to this challenge, let us try to understand what do we really mean by regulating the Internet. Regulation in terms of content (or what we are allowed to say)? Or in terms of data privacy or is it about what we can see?
Regulating what we say
When we are on Twitter, we think it is a different world. But, we don’t realise that it is part of the real world. People today identify us through our Instagram or Twitter handles . In today’s world which is a mix of the physical and the virtual, our actions online can/do have consequences offline.
For instance: One could be a physical abuser in the real world and carry on with his violent activities clandestinely. But, when this person is disguised in his online avatar and harasses women through obscene content and comments, there are limitations in the virtual world. Those being harassed could block this person on Twitter or report to Twitter. In the physical world, he could be sent to prison and there are laws which concretely ensure that the due process is followed!
But, on the Internet, Twitter cannot take direct action against the abuser and needs to first set regulations to monitor or ban such accounts. Even to track this person down through their IP, privacy issues come into play. With other tech platforms too, there’s no blanket solution because every medium needs to write its own rules. And, that’s open to guesswork!
Let me give you a recent example. The Indian government turned off access to social media in the Delhi/Haryana region during the Farmers’ Protests. The same approach was taken with respect to Jammu & Kashmir which saw the Internet being restored after over 500 days. The reason the Government of India states for Internet Shutdown is “to avoid more violence and escalation of protests.” But, in reality, if people want to incite violence, they would do it even without social media. So, a blanket solution like a ban doesn’t really work!
So, technology platforms can impose regulation but are they serious enough about it to combat hate, discrimination, fake news and other unacceptable activities happening online? Let us explore.
Big Tech and the abuse of power
Technology giants like Google, Facebook and others are hungry for hyper-personalisation today. And, to get there, this is how they trap a consumer. The cycle goes like this: Free online products exist → people use them, and produce data for those products → Makers of the products use that data however they want to — To improve the product; to make money through ads; to analyse/predict what a consumer will do before they even know it for themselves.
Now, that seems like it needs some regulation! Ideally, there needs to be a balance between hyper-personalisation and ethical data usage. But, are tech companies willing to go to that extent? We saw what happened with the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal which exposed the misuse of data of millions on Facebook by Donald Trump’s digital consultants for the US elections. And, then there are examples of how political parties within India used fake news and ran political ads to influence elections.
Whether we like it or not, tech platforms control online content. With media distributors increasingly acquiring content creators to distinguish their respective platforms from competitors, this has become inevitable. Moreover, platforms like Amazon Prime, Disney, Hotstar and others are focusing more on original content spend, and especially in the case of Netflix, even spending more than traditional studios.
Free Speech, Transparency & Illusion of Privacy
But wait…if you just look through Facebook’s business model, it relies on the invasion of privacy and not the other way round. It first entices its users to be brutally honest and calls it “radical transparency”, ensuring that they share their personal information. Later, under the garb of insights and hyper-personalisation, they target them with ads and keep them engaged.
So, basically what transparency of tech giants means is… our personal/intimate information being widely available to companies and malicious people who have the power to manipulate our political opinions, financial transaction history, intellectual habits and beliefs along with our patterns of consumption!
That brings us to the question if data privacy really exists in today’s world or is it just a web of illusions? Well, data is the new power. Big Tech companies realise the significance of possessing data of users from across the world and hence, are able to bargain even with governments. For instance: Given China’s authoritarian regime, it blocks out several foreign websites and has a Desi version of every other platform in the Communist country. So, a Tech Giant like Facebook created the Free Basics Package giving access to websites and services in a tie-up with telecom companies.
But, when you look through the Free Basics campaign, you do understand that what doesn’t feel like regulation is actually a regulation. What I mean by this is, Free Basics also restricts you from FREE access. So, it is not really the Internet you want to have access to. This is exactly what Internet activists have been protesting. “Forcing companies to be less secure online is dangerous and counterproductive. It threatens economic development and undermines the Internet’s global trustworthiness,” says Internet Society.
Increasing Political Control & Surveillance
It is an undeniable fact that the Internet has been revolutionary. It has fuelled economic growth, created millions of jobs, and allowed human progress through its adoption around the globe. But, it would be foolish to say that the choice of Internet regulation today is not a political issue. And, it shapes economic choices and market structure in ways we cannot imagine.
In such an environment, several countries have been trying to introduce Internet regulation with an approach focussed on their demography. Among them, hardly any nations have taken a stringent approach. Most regulate through a light censorship model, barring China, Russia, Germany and a few others.
Despite all the controls that governments are trying to impose, they do understand that their control is limited. All that the governments around the globe have been trying to do with censorship of online content is to make a political statement. What they do understand is that big tech companies enjoy a monopoly across sectors as they use the regulatory gaps to mine users’ data due to consumer loyalty. And, therefore it has become difficult to use a common or blanket solution to create regulatory measures and safeguards.
Additionally, some countries like China, Russia, Vietnam, Turkey have increased their surveillance which allows them to shut down parts of the Internet they do not like users to have access to. Most countries use surreptitious tactics of interception, monitoring and decrypting digital communication which allows law enforcement and security agencies to interfere with user privacy and provide the government with the power to set national encryption standards.
The ongoing tussle between Twitter and the Indian Government exemplifies increased surveillance. With ongoing farmer protests rocking the country, the current BJP government directed Twitter to block nearly 250 accounts posting “anti-government” content. However, citing lack of proper justification, Twitter India restored these accounts. What followed this action of Twitter was the India Government itself threatening the social media giant with legal action if it failed to block the accounts it mentioned.
Taking a step further, the Indian Government clearly stated in the Parliament that “action will be taken against social media companies if they misused their platforms to spread fake news and violence.” Though Twitter has clarified that the government’s orders clearly “violate users’ fundamental right to free expression under Indian law,” it exposes how even Big Tech companies cannot escape government surveillance!
Do we really know how to regulate the Internet?
However, if one considers regulation from a user perspective, it is always a conflict between privacy and freedom of expression. And, that is where consumers need clarification. For example: Why is the user not informed that a site is blocked? What procedure should the government or a country or a state use to clarify the situation? Who will be responsible if a site without illegal content gets blocked?
These questions reflect the fact that the world is still unaware of how to regulate the Internet in the first place. But, what it also emphasises on is that regulation should be mindful of region-specific issues and regulate content accordingly. At least, it makes sense that way and ensures that consumers aren’t impacted eventually.
Even as countries have begun working on figuring out regulatory measures, can we ever regulate the Internet with technology being an ever-changing entity? Well, we’d be foolish to think that a deregulated Internet means we are not being watched. It is just that we are unaware of the extent of surveillance on us!
The Big Brother is always watching you. 👀