Transparency regulations is need of the hour. And urgently for election and political advertising. What do the ads look like? Who paid for them? Who was the target? How many people saw these advertisements? How many times? Transparency around viral content is also required

Traditionally, we have depended on the private censorship that intermediaries conduct on their platforms. They enforce, with some degree of success, their own community guidelines and terms of services (TOS). Traditionally, these guidelines and TOS have been drafted keeping in mind US laws since historically most intermediaries, including non-profits like Wikimedia Foundation were founded in the US.

Across the world, this private censorship regime was accepted by governments when they enacted intermediary liability laws (in India we have Section 79A of the IT Act). These laws gave intermediaries immunity from liability emerging from third party content about which they have no “actual knowledge” unless they were informed using takedown notices. Intermediaries set up offices in countries like India, complied with some lawful interception requests, and also conducted geo-blocking to comply with local speech regulation.

For years, the Indian government has been frustrated since policy reforms that it has pursued with the US have yielded little fruit. American policy makers keep citing shortcomings in the Indian justice systems to avoid expediting the MLAT (Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties) process and the signing of an executive agreement under the US Clout Act. This agreement would compel intermediaries to comply with lawful interception and data requests from Indian law enforcement agencies no matter where the data was located.

The data localisation requirement in the draft national data protection law is a result of that frustration. As with the US, a quickly enacted data localisation policy is absolutely non-negotiable when it comes to Indian military, intelligence, law enforcement and e-governance data. For India, it also makes sense in the cases of health and financial data with exceptions under certain circumstances. However, it does not make sense for social media platforms since they, by definition, host international networks of people. Recently an inter ministerial committee recommended that “criminal proceedings against Indian heads of social media giants” also be considered. However, raiding Google’s local servers when a lawful interception request is turned down or arresting Facebook executives will result in retaliatory trade actions from the US.

While the consequences of online recruitment, disinformation in elections and fake news to undermine public order are indeed serious, are there alternatives to such extreme measures for Indian policy makers? Updating intermediary liability law is one place to begin. These social media companies increasingly exercise editorial control, albeit indirectly, via algorithms to claim that they have no “actual knowledge”.

But they are no longer mere conduits or dumb pipes as they are now publishers who collect payments to promote content. Germany passed a law called NetzDG in 2017 which requires expedited compliance with government takedown orders. Unfortunately, this law does not have sufficient safeguards to prevent overzealous private censorship. India should not repeat this mistake, especially given what the Supreme Court said in the Shreya Singhal judgment.

Transparency regulations are imperative. And they are needed urgently for election and political advertising. What do the ads look like? Who paid for them? Who was the target? How many people saw these advertisements? How many times? Transparency around viral content is also required. Anyone should be able to see all public content that has been shared with more than a certain percentage of the population over a historical timeline for any geographic area. This will prevent algorithmic filter bubbles and echo chambers, and also help public and civil society monitor unconstitutional and hate speech that violates terms of service of these platforms. So far the intermediaries have benefitted from surveillance — watching from above. It is time to subject them to sousveillance — watched by the citizens from below.

Data portability mandates and interoperability mandates will allow competition to enter these monopoly markets. Artificial intelligence regulations for algorithms that significantly impact the global networked public sphere could require – one, a right to an explanation and two, a right to influence automated decision making that influences the consumers experience on the platform.

The real solution lies elsewhere. Google and Facebook are primarily advertising networks. They have successfully managed to destroy the business model for real news and replace it with a business model for fake news by taking away most of the advertising revenues from traditional and new news media companies. They were able to do this because there was a trust deficit between advertisers and publishers. Perhaps this trust deficit could be solved by a commons-based solutions based on free software, open standards and collective action by all Indian new media companies.

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