We should chalk up one more disaster under the year 2020 — the falling of curtains on hitherto free digital public spaces.
Project Veritas, a self-proclaimed outfit for guerilla journalists, recently published an expose on Facebook contractors who made important decisions whether to take down or keep posts flagged by other users or the company’s algorithm.
These Left-leaning content moderators were caught on camera boasting about “deleting posts and comments supporting US President Donald Trump and conservative causes”.
Twitter has now rigorously started censoring Trump’s tweets by slapping warning labels on them and limiting their reach. His tweets have been labelled for posting misleading information, manipulated video (which was clearly a satire!) and for inciting violence, latest of which includes a tweet where he simply stated that attempts to create “autonomous zone” in Washington DC will be met with serious force.
Earlier, Trump’s warning to use force against rioters was also placed under censorship because Twitter thought it glorified violence.
Google Drive, a cloud-based data storage and sharing service, recently took down a documentary on Covid-19 pandemic from a user’s personal account, in gross violation of all ethical principles so far understood to be sacred in the Internet space.
Google Drive’s action is akin to Gmail deleting a private mail sent between friends or WhatsApp cleaning up a user’s chats it doesn’t like.
This disturbingly intrusive behaviour is acutely ideological in nature. Social media giants are now being fully controlled by the Left which is hell bent on stifling and de-platforming voices that threaten its cherished beliefs.
The Left enjoyed the monopoly in the opinion space for decades. It was finally broken in 2010s by the social media which democratised access and broke the dominance of one political ideology in the marketplace of ideas.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube et al provided platforms to common folks enabling them to forge relationships with others based on shared ideas and interests, shone light on talent yet undiscovered, created mini celebrities out of them, and challenged the narratives put forth by elite members of one ideology especially in the news media space.
But all that is now changing fast. The Left, whose monopoly was broken by the social media in the last decade, has now gained editorial control over these digital platforms.
And we are back to square one, with the Leftists again enjoying monopoly in the opinion space.
Those who cherish diversity of ideas and liberty of expression cannot allow this to happen.
Trump has signed an executive order (EO) detailing his vision that social media companies which censor content in bad faith should be treated as publishers (and thus made liable to be sued) rather than like neutral platforms whose good faith actions censoring content are protected under law in the US.
Trump’s EO is merely a statement of intent. He cannot make the law. Only Congress can. Given the political divisiveness in the US, it is unlikely this will happen anytime soon.
In fact, 2016 victory of Donald Trump is the reason why neutral platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc have turned into partisan publishers. These social media companies were accused by the US Democratic Party of aiding and abetting the rise of Trump. The Democratic Left went after them for enabling Trump’s presidency. They were put in the dock and have been on the defensive ever since.
The problem is that not only the US right but the whole world will have to play by the rules and sensibilities of the US Left-wing. India has to stop this modern colonialism in its tracks and not allow even the local division of the globalist Left, let alone the US Left to dictate who can say what.
Unlike the US President, Indian Prime Minister has the numbers in Parliament to pass the law to regulate the social media companies so that the neutrality of these digital public spaces can be maintained. (Even without changes to the IT Act of 2000, the government can simply amend the guidelines by executive fiat and implement its policies).
In the US, debate is all about whether social media companies should be legally classified as publishers exercising editorial control and thus made liable for litigation or as platforms with protection from people suing them. India needs to avoid this false dichotomy.
Litigation shouldn’t be the overarching focus in the debate. Plus, there is freedom of press which enjoys highest immunity in courts from legal action. If social media firms position themselves as media companies, then they can enjoy all the legal immunity entitled to neutral platforms while being as partisan as they want.
India needs to chart a different path.
Currently, social media and other Internet platforms (termed as “intermediaries”) are exempted from liabilities thanks to the provisions listed under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act of 2000. If a user is misusing a platform and breaking a law, then the government authorities can take action only against the user and not the platform. However, to be eligible to avail these safe harbour provisions, the platforms need to follow certain guidelines (these are revised from time to time, latest in 2018).
India’s rules on Internet platforms get a few things right.
First, the government rightly classifies them as intermediaries (rather than publisher or platform which have their own implied meanings — publisher, for instance, is supposed to have copyright over content of its publication. If Twitter is a publisher, then your tweets can be Twitter’s intellectual property too and you may lose right over republishing it elsewhere).
Second, IT Act clearly mandates under Section 79 that to be exempt from liability arising out of its users’ actions, an intermediary should not "initiate, select the receiver of the transmission and select or modify the transmission".
Third, it rightly directs the intermediaries to take down content which is prohibited under Indian laws and assist the governments in tracking down those who misuse them while committing crimes. What is prohibited content is decided by Indian law not moderators of social media companies.
However, the IT Act and Section 79 are wholly focused on preventing misuse of Internet portals by users rather than addressing the misuse by the portals themselves.
This should be addressed by the Narendra Modi government at the earliest via an amendment to the IT Act.
India must make clear distinctions between social media portals — those that primarily have user generated content and those which do not — rather than treating all portals in the same manner. The former should be declared digital public spaces (DPSs) and barred from exercising any editorial control except on directions from the government to take down content which is illegal as per Indian laws.
This means that YouTube can’t take down videos of anyone (like it did with CarryMinati). But Netflix can choose to have anyone on board and de-platform someone it doesn’t like. The former‘s content is user-generated, not the latter’s.
Ditto for Facebook, Twitter, Quora, Google, etc which will be classified as DPSs while Amazon Prime, Hotstar, etc, can choose to host whatever and whoever they want.
This century is going to be all about Internet. Democratisation of data is unleashing creativity and productivity at an unprecedented scale. Internet portals will be used by millions for learning, work, entertainment, telemedicine and what not. We cannot afford to give the keys of such a wonderfully promising future to an intolerant cartel of one political ideology.
Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
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