Policy | A solution to end the Internet privacy vs accountability impasse

Picture for representation

For many months the Union government has engaged with social media and privacy groups across India on creating a common set of guidelines, but a breakthrough has eluded. Simultaneously, it has been wary of enacting a privacy law that it couldn’t effectively implement without the support of the technology platforms, most of which are run out of the United States.

At the centre of the impasse is this: How can we reconcile principles such as Internet privacy and freedom of speech on the one hand, with social responsibility on the other? Social media, ironically in some ways, stands for Internet privacy and freedom of speech, whereas the government stands for accountability, especially when fake news and other devious content lead to violence.

So can the twain ever meet? It most certainly can.

We would do ourselves a favour by first stopping efforts to frame one-size-fits-all guidelines, or even one that will last the test of time. Social media platforms come in different shapes and need different rules. Privacy norms are still evolving and will need frequent tweaks to meet societal goals. Facebook would require different rules than, say, LinkedIn, and some like Pinterest may need none. Similarly, potential abuses on Instagram are very different from the ones on Twitter, and WhatsApp, as we know, is a different beast altogether.

Contrary to perceptions, most of social media already offers a workable solution for accountability, however flawed it might be. This is in the form of information requests or ‘take-downs’. Facebook and Twitter have implemented ‘real names’ policy as closely as they conceivably could, except for the faceless bots on the platforms. This means it is relatively easy to track content creators.

To then talk of linking social media accounts to Aadhaar-like forms of identification — as some ‘activists’ have demanded in a case being heard in the Madras High Court as well as the Supreme Court — is moot and undesirable, given the known privacy abuses by social media. If anything, authorities across India are guilty of coming down harshly on purported wrongdoers even when much of the allegedly offensive content would likely be upheld by courts under the right to freedom of speech.

The true social media impasse is around the encrypted messaging platforms, notably WhatsApp with nearly 400 million users in India. Other comparable messaging platforms include Telegram and Signal. Both offer similar end-to-end encryption as the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, meaning nobody except the sender and the recipient(s) can read them, but have few users in India.

WhatsApp has fought off demands from governments across the world to break its encryption, or allow authorities a so-called backdoor to snoop on select users when circumstances require. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, as much as Apple’s Tim Cook, deserve praise for standing up to such outrageous demands by authorities. It is a reason why WhatsApp, or the protected iPhone, stand out as beacons of freedom in repressed countries, or even in some democracies where people are constrained to speak up for fear of retaliation or social backlash.

In India, WhatsApp has resisted calls for ‘traceability’ of messages even when fake news has been linked to scores of lynching incidents and other forms of violence. It has also offered to provide ‘metadata’ related to the messages but has not specified what specifically it may share with authorities upon requests. Metadata could include a user’s location, time and date of content’s publication, etc. However, the only thing of consequence WhatsApp has done is limiting the number of ‘forwards’ to five.

The Union government would do well to stop making demands on ‘traceability’ or ending encryption. Instead, it could through varied means transform the way WhatsApp is used and steer it toward Zuckerberg’s own ‘privacy-focused’ vision as the ‘digital equivalent of the living room’. This could mean much smaller group sizes, maybe as low as 10, a number that could fit in most living rooms. This alone would seriously constrain spread of fake news or political propaganda.

WhatsApp could even be persuaded to set limits on the number of daily forwards by individual users, or ‘throttle’ delivery of messages in sensitive circumstances. These demands do not compromise end-to-end encryption, and ensure user-privacy and anonymity. What they do instead is undermine abuse of the platform because it would simply become harder to amplify fake news or libellous material to a large audience in good time.

WhatsApp itself has cracked down on a number of groups that have tried to ‘broadcast’ to a large number of users, saying the platform is designed to stay private. Such usage curbs would protect the integrity of end-to-end encryption, preserve the messaging platforms as a lasting bastion for privacy and anonymity, and still be in line with Zuckerberg’s own vision.

Can India really order such curbs on WhatsApp?

It could be justified on law and order grounds, and perhaps because WhatsApp is a potent monopoly deserving of regulation. Regardless, the threat of such curbs could drive the messaging platform more earnestly toward the negotiating table, rather than toward the Supreme Court, which recently revealed its unsympathetic views on tech companies when it ordered the government to set out a timetable for publishing social media guidelines.