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Social Media and Accountability

  • Category
    Polity & Governance
  • Published
    14th Mar, 2019

Recently, Parliamentary panel on information technology told representatives of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram that they cannot operate like news media without accountability.

Issue

Context:

Recently, Parliamentary panel on information technology told representatives of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram that they cannot operate like news media without accountability.

About:

The Parliamentary panel on Information Technology had summoned Twitter head Jack Dorsey to appear before it and had refused to meet "junior officials" of the micro blogging site during its meeting.

The meeting had been called against the backdrop of growing concerns about safeguarding citizens' data privacy and the possibility of social media platforms being used to interfere in the upcoming elections.

Background:

A surge of hate speech on Facebook and other social media sites in India has raised the political heat. Under basic User-Content agreements, offensive posts would have to be taken down within one week after a complaint is submitted.

Companies would also be required to file quarterly reports on their efforts to crack down on hate speech.

Of late, social media has gained wider attention. In fact, 2018 was the year of judgment for social media: Facebook had one of the worst years with issues being raised over data and user privacy, Google Plus was finally shut down as well.

The government has been taking a strong view of misuse of social media platforms and is also proposing to amend IT rules to curb fake news and increase accountability of such apps.

 Some important pointers about social media:

  • Information and communication technology has changed rapidly over the past 20 years with a key development being the emergence of social media.
  • Across the globe, mobile devices dominate in terms of total minutes spent online. This puts the means to connect anywhere, at any time on any device in everyone’s hand.
  • These instruments have also been accused of being a carrier of hate messages and fake news that incited mob violence.
  • And, now they stare at the prospects of stricter government rules, greater accountability, and regulatory scrutiny.

Analysis

Why the issue is important:

  • Hackers got access to the 50 million accounts by exploiting bugs in Facebook’s code and stole “access tokens,” or digital keys to gain access.
  • The investigation showed that in some cases the device makers could pull information on users and their friends’ relationship statuses, political leanings, locations, etc., even if explicit consent was not given.

What has happened now?

The 31-member parliamentary panel is mulling over following pointers:

  1. Whether social media platforms are aggregators or selectors of content
  2. Have the social media acted as a lobby group in various countries?
  3. What is the scope of human intervention in their processes?
  4. Whether or not they had ombudsmen in place for grievance redressal

What is the difference between social media platforms as aggregators or selectors of content?

  • Social Media Aggregators are used for aggregating the content from the most popular social media accounts in order to be able to analyze, moderate, curate and display the social feed.
  • Selectors of content: When these social media platforms use algorithms to display the "user-specific" content. For example, a student of UPSC civil services examination gets to see various government schemes or ads from coaching institute's content material and/or coaching classes.

Highlights from the Report and Bill:

  • Restrictions on Processing and Collection of Personal Data: Processing (collection, recording, analysis, disclosure, etc.) of personal data should be done only for “clear, specific and lawful” purposes. Only that data which is necessary for such processing is to be collected from anyone.
  • Processing of Personal Data for “Functions of the State”: Personal data may be processed by the government if this is considered necessary for any function of Parliament or State Legislature. This includes provision of services, issuing of licenses, etc. On the face of it, this looks extremely vague and could lead to misuse.
  • Right to be Forgotten: Giving “data principals” (persons whose personal data is being processed) the ‘right to be forgotten’. This means they will be able to restrict or prevent any display of their personal data once the purpose of disclosing the data has ended, or when the data principal withdraws consent from disclosure of their personal data.
  • Data Localization: Personal data will need to be stored on servers located within India, and transfers outside the country will need to be subject to safeguards. Critical personal data, however, will only be processed in India.
  • Processing of Sensitive Personal Data to Require Explicit Consent: “sensitive” personal data (such as passwords, financial data, sexual orientation, biometric data, religion or caste) should not be processed unless someone gives explicit consent – which factors in the purpose of processing.
  • Data Protection Authority: The Authority shall have the power to inquire into any violations of the data protection regime, and can take action against any data fiduciaries responsible for the same.

Have the media platforms acted in the past to remedy certain ills?

Social networking platforms in 2018, not only made country-specific changes -- be it labeling forwarded messages, limiting the number of people a user can send a message to at one go and launching public awareness campaigns against fake news. They also agreed to store user data belonging to Indians within the country.

  • Effect of Social Media on Politics: A new study from Pew Research claimed that 62 percent of people get their news from social media, with 18 percent doing so very often.
  • Social media allows people to communicate with one another more freely, they are helping to create surprisingly influential social organizations among once-marginalized group. But a key question is whether the information being shared is "genuine” and if there has been any moderation whatsoever placed in its distributions network?

While social media activism brings an increased awareness about societal issues, questions remain as to whether this awareness is translating into real change.

Social media platforms have the potential to create division in society, incite violence, pose threat to India’s security or let foreign powers meddle in Indian elections.

Considering the need for clear regulation of this sector, the government has drafted a bill on data protection. It has liberally utilized recommendations of the Justice BN Srikrishna committee's report.

While the two issues (use of social media as a news platform and data protection) are two different issues, however it is to be aptly considered as intertwined. The absence of clear data protection norms will let the media platforms slip away from the havoc which the malicious news content may produce.

Way forward:

Facebook, Twitter and the WhatsApp have admitted that there is a scope for corrective measures and they would undertake these measures at the earliest.

It would be worthy to see if these corrective actions are taken within the GDPR and Justice B.N. Srikrishna committee's report guidelines.

The social media is a faceless leviathan. What it does has the capacity to impact millions. Within this context, it becomes all the more critical to evolve an ever encompassing and comprehensive framework to allow its run freely under competent accountability norms.

Learning Aid

Practice Question:

Recently, Indian Parliamentary House panel told social media platforms that they can’t carry news without accountability as aggregators or selectors of content. Analyze the statement in the context of draft Data Protection Bill. Examine, how far the proposed action of the government can create a justified regulation within social media?

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