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Data protection norms will change the digital domain

The next wave of technology will help debug the virulence of some online media

columns Updated: May 25, 2018 18:25 IST
Among the potential benefits of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation will be flagging fake news, by not allowing bad actors easy access to target demographics.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Over the past few weeks, inboxes across the world have been swamped with updates of privacy policies and terms of reference. You probably have faced such pop-ups on social media platforms, pointing out how they are changing the way they collect and manage personal data. The reason for this surge is that the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR came into being on Friday, pretty much changing the digital domain.

These rules, formally limited to residents of the EU, promise much in terms of protecting users, and punitive measures against transgressing firms, equal to 4% of global revenue. Since such companies operate across geographies, they obviously will impact users getting online elsewhere, including in India. Among GDPR’s potential benefits will be flagging fake news, by not allowing bad actors easy access to target demographics.

As far as digital disinformation goes, tech innovation may better resolve that crisis than ham-fisted officiousness, as the recent attempt to control online outlets in India shows. A Brookings Institution report noted late last year the evolution of algorithms to weed out nearly 99% of fraudulent news.

For instance, the startup TruePic uses blockchain technology to serve as a digital notary for photographs and videos. This is relevant to countries like India where manipulated images can spark strife. The TruePic app watermarks smartphone visuals with date, time and location within seconds of their being uploaded, to ensure that for a change, seeing is believing.

In fact, there is a geopolitical element to this app’s utility. Images coming out of conflict zones, for instance, are often questioned and critiqued depending on political predilections. The same goes for those at public protests, as India has increasingly witnessed in recent months. An image authenticated by TruePic, meanwhile, makes it difficult for malicious actors to manipulate media for their purposes.

As these inventive intermediaries appear, they do so because they fulfil a need, often far more effectively than government diktats. Even social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook have managed to democratise the flow of information. Of course, ineffective internal policing of hate material has only helped in making them targets of political potshots.

The next wave of technology will help debug the virulence of some online media. A light regulatory touch can assist the process. However, major moves like GDPR will work for giants like Facebook, Amazon or Apple, while smaller players will fall into a complicated compliance black hole. The effect will be felt not just in the EU, but also across the world.

Governmental measures sound great until you realise they will be administered by bureaucrats. Babus let loose on ambiguous protocols — what could go wrong, right? There’s the telling EU GDPR resource to educate the public on the “main elements” of the rules that encompass over 150 pages and 99 Articles. That’s been inaccessible much of the week leading up to its coming into force.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs. The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 25, 2018 18:22 IST