The Election Commission’s recent move to monitor political parties campaigning on the web is likely to come a cropper due to operational challenges. The commission is planning to consult social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook for a way forward. Last week, in a communication to political parties, the commission had asked them to provide details of their social media accounts and the expenditure incurred on web advertising and secure the commission’s approval before posting advertisements online. The new guidelines are to be implemented for the coming Assembly elections and for the Lok Sabha elections next year. Experts feel the EC is too ambitious in its objective, saying keeping tabs on political campaigning may be “challenging” and “difficult”. Tracking the expenditure of political campaigns in the traditional media was easy, but in the social media space, it was complex, said a government official. The official added advertisements on social media were linked to the clicks or hits they got and the total amount paid was difficult to calculate. “The political parties will under-declare the costs and it would be difficult to get information on online advertisement expenditure from technology companies.” The commission’s directive has also faced resistance from the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, which has expressed its reservations to the commission, citing operational issues. To work out the operation details of the guidelines, the commission has been in consultations with the ministry through the last month. An EC official said though the task might seem difficult, the commission had already taken the first step in this regard by forming a few guidelines for the social media. “We are not trying to censure the social media and will rope in social media companies as our partners in this exercise,” the official said. The commission is expected to have across-the-board consultations with all stakeholders, including social media websites and political parties. Through the last few years, internet companies, especially social media firms, have been having a rough ride in the country, with respect to complying with the government’s request to share information on citizens.
While the government alleges multinational technology companies don’t follow the law of the land, companies cite their user privacy policies as a deterrent to sharing most of the requested information. Political parties have also expressed displeasure at the commission’s intent to map their activities on the web. Arvind Gupta, head of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s information technology cell, said there was a need for more clarity on the implementation of these guidelines. “These should not be an attempt at censorship in the garb of monitoring violations of electoral laws,” he said. Shantaram Naik, chairman of the standing committee on personnel, public-grievances, law and justice, questioned the authority of the commission to issue such guidelines. Terming the move “gate-crashing”, he said, “Whether they can manage (social media) or not is a secondary question, but are they aware of the law under which they can issue such instructions?” He asked when the government always made rules in consultation with the commission, why couldn’t it consult the government or political parties before issuing such instructions. The 2014 general elections are expected to be the first in which the internet and social media are expected to play an important part. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, there are about 120 million internet users in India and 100-160 constituencies have been identified as those that would see an impact of digital media campaigning in the coming elections. Another issue facing the Election Commission is that of anonymity. The government official quoted earlier said in the online world, it was very difficult to get the exact identity of a person, as there were “hidden servers” on which data was hosted. Mahesh Murthy, founder, digital brand management firm Pinstorm, says the commission’s guidelines are “disappointing”. He adds the simplest way for parties to side-step the norms would be to get party supporters to open accounts and “then claim plausible deniability for any unapproved or offensive messaging that might emanate from those accounts — a nudge-nudge-wink-wink way of getting your messaging across”.