Social Media-Tightening the Reins

Appellants have sought judicial intervention making Aadhar authentication mandatory for all social media accounts. Is this the right step to stop fake news/ incitement of hate or a pretext for muzzling opinion? 

Background

The popularity of social media platforms has transformed them from frivolous ‘chat rooms’ into opinion influencers with ‘flash crowding’ powers. Indians are taking to social media in a big way- 300 million on Whatsapp, 270 million on Facebook and 34 million on Twitter, and counting. With 160 million new smartphones purchased in 2018 by Indians, the user base is predicted to expand exponentially making social media indeed a very powerful tool for mass opinion.

The Information Technology Act, 2000 regulates the internet in India. The aim of the Act is to “deliver and facilitate lawful electronic, digital, and online transactions, and mitigate cyber-crimes”. The current version does not impose any kind of conditionality or restriction on an individual user for joining social media groups. 

Petitions have been filed in Madras, Bombay and Madhya Pradesh High Courts seeking mandatory authentication of social media accounts using government-issued proofs of identity, like Aadhar. The move has been allegedly caused by recent cases of mob violence incited on social media. The pleas seek to empower law enforcement agencies to identify users who “misuse” the freedom of the net “for hate content, fake news and cyberbullying”.

The case has reached the Apex Court on a plea of Facebook to combine all the appeals under a common bench to avoid conflicting decisions from the lower judiciary.  

Analysis

The proclaimed objective of linking social media accounts with Aadhar/ government issued identity documents- “to prevent the spread of hatred and instigate violence, detrimental to national unity and security”- is laudable. However, the larger fear is that this could be an Orwellian intrusion into individual privacy.

Facebook has resisted the suggestion of linking identity proofs on the grounds that it would violate the privacy policy of users. The Tamil Nadu government stated in its reply to the Apex Court that Facebook’s concern about privacy was a “red herring”. They argued that privacy “does not lie in the mouth of the petitioner [Facebook], whose primary business model is the use and commercialisation of users’ data, which is in turn shared with businesses and political parties for targeted advertising”.  

Previously the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) had proposed changes to Section 79 of the Information Technology Act. The amendment requires social media companies to “enable tracing out of originators of information on its platform as required by legally authorised government agencies". Internet companies were concerned that this would amount to censoring and undermine individual privacy. Nick Clegg, Facebook’s Vice President in his recent visit to India has offered to assist law enforcement agencies with access to ‘mseta data’.

The judiciary is sensitive to the individual’s right to freedom of expression. In a 2015 judgement, the Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 which dealt with ‘punishment for sending offensive messages through communication services etc.’ was deemed draconian and unconstitutional.  

Counterpoint

It is an irrefutable fact that cyberspace is being inundated with fake/ malicious material. During the 2019 elections, Facebook and its family of apps, expanded their fact-checking network to curb the spread of misinformation. With the help of artificial intelligence, Facebook was able to help identify “inauthentic” posts and user behaviour.

WhatsApp was caught in a storm of viral hoax messages which incited numerous lynchings for alleged child kidnappings. Later, using artificial intelligence the company was able to detect and ban accounts that spread problematic content. Social media was also held accountable when there were ghost messages targeting people from North East India, which led to many of them fearing for their safety, and leaving the cities they worked in.

Unfortunately, in liberal democracies, there is an increasing trend to misuse this freedom and anonymity. Unscrupulous entities tend to flood cyberspace with vicious, mala fide and fake news/ manipulated half-truths to incite hatred and violence.  

Assessment

  • Social media enables unfettered expression of public and private opinion. While liberal democracies tolerate such expressions benignly, this situation is not well liked by repressive regimes. In the largest democracy in the world, India- freedom of expression, on all types of media, needs to be preserved. We do not need the state to monitor and control every aspect of our daily life.
  • At times, confidentiality is conducive for free expression and liberal thought. The electoral process is an example where voter confidentiality is strictly ensured. 
  • Aadhar data cannot be put on the internet as it will be prone to hacking and misuse. The Supreme court had decreed linking Aadhaar with bank accounts and SIM cards as unconstitutional, and this interpretation of privacy rights cannot change from case to case.
  • Notwithstanding the right to privacy and free expression without fear of prosecution, checks need to be built into social media architecture. Social media providers, who make a healthy profit for their entrepreneurship, should be mandated to use AI and other tools to detect and flush out such material. State intervention should not be required to achieve this.
  • Here it must be understood that any move to authenticate users will impact the user base evaluation of Social Media companies. A fall in user growth will affect their stock price and impact their ad revenues. Companies need to overcome their profit-oriented outlook and take their social responsibilities seriously.

Image Courtesy: highvelder.co.za 

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