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Saving our elections from manipulation: Regulatory agenda for social media

Many in India are experiencing the Internet for the very first time without being immunised through previous exposure, which makes it harder for them to determine the truth value of online content

Sunil Abraham 

India's experience in taxing foreign digital platforms is a mixed bag

I was six when my parents took me to see my first movie — the 1937 animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Since I was raised in a home without television, the moving picture had a profound visceral effect on me. As the tension built, I was completely overwhelmed by the sound and the evil laughter of the queen, and my unabated high-decibel reaction to what was happening on screen greatly annoyed the other patrons, forcing my parents to leave the cinema hall. Today, I watch with admiration as six-year-olds sit unmoved through hyper-realistic gruesome action and horror movies. This is because they have had screens surround them ever since they were born and are therefore less impacted by the digital content they consume.

There are many in our country who are similarly experiencing the Internet for the very first time without the advantage of being immunised through previous exposure. Many of them are illiterate, which makes it harder for them to determine the truth value of online content. This potential for manipulation through digital media has a “novelty effect” which reduces with time. Therefore, it is important that we don’t over-regulate social media based on the current impact on citizenry.

Today, when I travel from my office to my home, throughout the journey I am a recipient of non-digital forms of advertisements -- billboards, on vehicles and in vehicles, on humans etc. When it comes to non-digital advertisement, there is a high degree of transparency which enables monitoring of compliance to election campaign financing limits. The black box public sphere that has been provisioned by Internet monopolies also needs to be similarly transparent and regulated to protect our democracies from manipulation.

Transparency and Know Your Customer: Google and Facebook have introduced, or will introduce, some transparency measures after allegations of Russian manipulation in the last US presidential elections. The most important step is publishing the identity of the person or legal entity that paid for the advertisement. As a privacy advocate, I believe an anonymous speech by the ordinary citizen is a key prerequisite of democracies and open societies. However, when it comes to political advertisements, public interest overweighs the privacy right involved when the advertiser is an individual. Needless to add, political parties as non-humans have no right to privacy. Other transparency measure will or should include: the image file or video file being served to the viewer, the target of the advertisements in terms of key-words, device and location, the number of times the advertisement was served to each segment of its target market, the amount paid by the advertiser for the advertisement and the time period over which the advertisement was served to its audience.

Data Protection: Internet monopolies today provide a range of campaigning solutions to politicians and political parties. There are some questions about these services that could be easily answered if India had proper implementation of a modern data protection law. India is very close to enacting such a law, but for the next general particular election we still don’t have one. These are the questions we need urgently answered. What data points are collected from the users under the following categories -- data that is explicitly submitted by the users, data that is collected from the device and data that is inferred from the first two categories of data? Which data points under the above categories from the user is exposed individually or in aggregate to the political entities?

User Empowerment: Beyond data protection regulation, there is also need to regulate the use of artificial intelligence technologies that are used to construct an individual user’s “echo chamber” or “filter bubble”. Just like Bertrand Russell’s chicken, whose life experience of being fed daily by the farmer did not save it from becoming curry, individual political views also suffers from the “problem of induction”. A citizen may change her political views overnight after holding them consistently for four years. Internet monopolies, therefore, should not use an AI model trained on historical data to force her to consume content she is no longer interested in. User controls must be provided to all users so that they can see the feed optimised for other political views. This can also be used by election monitors to see how supporters of different parties experience the platform.

Neutrality: Political advertising on Internet monopolies also needs to be regulated using the “common carrier” principle. The Internet age example of this principle is net neutrality, where ISPs are required to treat all online service providers in an equitable fashion. When it comes to paid advertising and other services for politicians, Internet monopolies must treat all politicians and political parties equally to ensure fair electoral outcomes. Today there are several questions in this area that remains unanswered. Is advertising space provided at the same rate across the political spectrum? Are all political parties targeted equally when it comes to marketing of services for politicians? Do independent candidates get the same deal as large political parties? Do services come with the same “service level agreement”? Opinion polls run by platforms themselves must be banned, since there is conflict of interest with the sale of advertising space. Campaigns urging people to vote must be equally visible to all voters with no discrimination.

Intermediary Liability: The notice and take down regime must be equitably enforced across all political entities. Political advertisements that are unlawful or not in compliance with the terms of service must be taken down within same time period after a take down notice is received. The adjudication process must be transparent to the complainant, the affected political entity and also to some degree for the general public. The detailed instructions that are used by the staff of the intermediary to adjudicate on take down notices must be developed in consultation with all stakeholders and should also be shared publicly.

Hopefully, the various parts of government responsible for each aspect of the regulatory agenda described above will act at the earliest so that we can save our elections from these internet giants.


The author is Executive Director, Centre for Internet and Society. He tweets @sunil_abraham

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Tue, January 22 2019. 09:54 IST