IT’S that time of year for looking back, beyond recent events like the time it took the national media to wake up to the plight of the trapped miners in Meghalaya (a disgrace, considering the coverage we gave to the football team trapped in a Thai cave), and how Donald Trump spent his Christmas (predictably, disgracefully). Domestically and internationally, 2018 will be remembered as a cusp in the culture of communications, when public faith was withdrawn from large digital corporates and some governments, and privacy became an overarching concern.
Internationally, the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal of March continues, and The Guardian, one of the three media houses involved in the investigation, pointed out this week that with only 100 days to go to Brexit, it remains unclear what influence digital black box politics may have exerted over the vote to leave the European Union. In India, there was an uproar when 10 agencies were empowered to seek from communications providers the content and origination of digital communications from all computers, on pain of imprisonment.
This is happening against the backdrop of fundamental shifts in power relations brought on by convergence. Little distinction remains between government and big digital corporations, as is clear from news headlines like, ‘Plan to tweak IT rules may widen rift between government, social media companies’. The term ‘rift’ is usually applied to differences between nations — India and Pakistan, or Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Its use to describe relations between a government and some corporates is telling.
But the most fundamental change is that it has become meaningless to distinguish between online and offline media. All media houses have a strong digital presence, and TCP/IP is the pipe that delivers almost all communications — narrowcast, broadcast, conversations, real news as well as triumphs of Photoshop. They reference each other continuously and one can no longer think of them as discrete threads, but as components of a cloud.
It’s a confusing space in which numerically inferior troll and bot armies can steer conversations, and digital mercenaries retained by political parties are admired by the real press for their ability to do so. That’s human nature, to admire and deify what you don’t understand.
The explosion of fake news in India, which has resulted in very real deaths and altered the course of politics, and the exposure of Cambridge Analytica’s role in polls in the US and UK, have struck at the very basis of democracy, the right to informed choice. This is a cusp in the history of communications, as much as the Arab Spring of 2010-2011 was. That was a positive story, in which citizens leveraged social media to make news in countries where almost all the news was state-sponsored fakery.
The story playing out currently is dark, rife with unreasonable anxieties and hatreds. It is fuelling the violent politics of insecurity and bringing to power authoritarian leaders who use social media to connect directly with their sympathisers. A withdrawal of general trust in government becomes inevitable.
Consider the government’s draft rules to regulate social media. Its stated goal is legitimate, to weed out fake news and identify its producers. It is in line with the Supreme Court’s concerns about fake news and an extension of current law. In fact, traceability appears to be in force already since on Wednesday, while announcing arrests in an “IS-inspired” terrorist plot, Alok Mittal, inspector-general of the National Investigation Agency, said that leads had come from WhatsApp and Telegram communications.
The real story, therefore, was the uproar when the draft rules were made public for discussion. Since the rules themselves are not out of line, the anxiety obviously is about the government — any government — which will operate the rules. A clear lack of trust was visible. The uproar also diverted attention from a matter of high concern. Forcing communications providers to compromise (not break, that’s almost impossible) their end-to-end encryption amounts to undermining the right to privacy of all citizens. Private parties can use the same techniques that the provider uses, to collect data on anyone. While the objective of preventing lynchings and terrorism is beyond criticism, a general attack on the right to privacy, an intrinsic part of the right to life and liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, is open to legal challenge.
The erosion of privacy in India may seem to be relatively minor, compared with the rape of privacy that has been seen in the other major democracies, particularly the US and UK. Facebook has effectively defied the sovereign authority of Westminster, and there is little disquiet in the company about the ongoing allegations of playing fast and loose with user data. But then, it illustrates what can happen in India, in the hands of a government which is prepared to be as cavalier as a corporate entity has been. In 2019, it appears, anything could be possible.