Policymakers must engage more with technology firms
Our policymakers must be alive to the danger of not engaging with citizen groups or failing to hold technology companies to account for issues that impact our fundamental rights; this weakens trust in our institutions, fails to shape better government policy, and can result in weaker outcomes for the nation and our internet as a whole.Updated: Feb 07, 2019, 14:36 IST
Parliament’s standing committee for information technology has a mandate that touches the most important issues for the connected present, and increasingly digital future, of India. Like all departmental parliamentary committees under the present system, its outputs are not automatically binding - they take the form of reports with findings and recommendations which are shared with the government and the full body of MPs for any action. But it plays a crucial role in holding government and other entities to account, opening up the policymaking process on technology issues to citizens and expert inputs, and using its power to call for hearings to also serve as a clear signalling function as to the approach the people of India wish on an issue.
A recent decision of the committee in choosing to hold hearings on the topic of citizen rights on social and online media, and only summoning representatives of the Ministry of Electronics and IT and one specific tech company, Twitter, should cause us to pause. In the United States, the topic of social media platform “bias” in favour of particular political parties was initially seen as a politically partisan step, with Republicans lawmakers raising the issue to criticise the perceived pro-Democratic Party tilt of most of Silicon Valley’s workforce. Those hearings still resulted in broader engagement on important public issues when public pressure made lawmakers ask specific questions about the data practices of technology platforms from key senior executives.
Parliamentary bodies across other countries have been seen as relevant and effective in how they have brought up the questions troubling their citizens regarding how their data and other fundamental rights are protected on online fora. Tech company CEOs and senior executives have been required to answer questions and provide solutions as to how they will better protect citizen’s data and how legal regimes regarding privacy impact their product decisions.
The parliamentary committee on IT started an inquiry into the issue of citizen privacy and data security after the Cambridge Analytica revelations. So far, it has yet to summon technology company executives or call for participation by representatives of citizen groups or academic experts on the subject of citizen privacy and data security, despite numerous hearings with different ministerial representatives. Our policymakers must be alive to the danger of not engaging with citizen groups or failing to hold technology companies to account for issues that impact our fundamental rights; this weakens trust in our institutions, fails to shape better government policy, and can result in weaker outcomes for the nation and our internet as a whole. A final outcome of the deliberations on this important topic is also key to ensuring that our legislature remains relevant in how they seek to protect privacy, rather than being overtaken by developments pushed by the executive and judicial branches of government.
The topic of targeted disinformation and how to ensure free expression while helping support healthier democratic discourse is a top concern, especially for India in this election year. As discussions in online disinformation and propaganda-related hearings before other parliaments has shown, it is better when such inquiries seek to robustly collect data on the current problems and how different actors are seeking to respond to them. Less data driven processes have instead resulted in overboard laws such as Malaysia’s Anti Fake News Act -- which was used to target political opponents and is now being sought to be repealed.
Platforms must also face more public inquiries and democratic discussion on how their content moderation policies and terms of service impact speech. In doing so, we must also recognise the impact that increased, targeted online harassment has on those whose voices are otherwise restricted elsewhere. Reports already shown how women and individuals from Scheduled Caste communities face significant harassment and abuse, and the need for online platforms to provide better spaces for them and institutionalise our own Constitution’s spirit and fundamental rights, as crafted by BR Ambedkar and our Constituent Assembly. Parliament was established to ensure that deliberative, inclusive processes can safeguard our constitution and the rights of all of our citizens. When it rushes through an issue in days, as it did with the addition of Section 66A in the 2008 amendments to India’s Information Technology Act , it can leave a legacy that takes many years to fix.
The writer is Asia policy director at Access Now and chair of the Internet Freedom Foundation