The controversy over content moderation at Facebook has descended into personalities, eclipsing (as perhaps both government and industry would like) the larger and more important issues.
Social media “platforms”, which enable their users to publish their thoughts and emotions directly, have become the largest and most influential media companies on the planet. They now tightly oligopolise the digital advertising market that they have transformed through large-scale privacy invasion. These are directed against those very users who make and consume their “content”, whose every breath and movement online they have arranged to spy on.
Because these companies watch everyone, read everything on their platforms (and, through their “like” buttons and URL-shorteners, much of what people read everywhere else on the Web), they have destroyed the anonymity of reading, which is crucial to the fundamental freedom of thought. If every book, newspaper and placard had been reporting every reader at headquarters for the last 500 years, the basic foundations of democracy and human rights would never have come into existence. Thanks to Facebook, Google, Twitter, TikTok, WeChat and their ilk – now they do.
These companies can exist, however, only because the law ignores the bad consequences of their actions, which it has never done for other publishers. Newspapers or broadcasters who publish harmful lies that cause harm to people in their lives face important legal consequences, not at the hands of the state, but because law provides private citizens protection against wrong. The platform companies have succeeded in placing themselves outside the sphere of mutual social responsibility. They do this by hiding behind the users once again.
In India, immunity is provided under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act under which intermediaries upon receiving actual knowledge of a court order and/ or the notification by the appropriate government agency must expeditiously remove the content to avail this immunity. The irony at the heart of the current crisis is that no government wants the local or multinational platform companies to be mere conduits. They all require the platforms to regulate and edit their content – to prevent copyright infringement, to block hate speech, to implement “the right to be forgotten”, or to further the corrupt purposes of political leadership.
As businesses subject to government regulation, and in receipt of the de facto or de jure privilege of inflicting harm on private citizens without legal responsibility, the platform companies must constantly negotiate with political power. The resulting contradiction lies at the heart of the mess that presently existing social media are making of politics and society everywhere. They have risen above the law because they are fictionally supposed never to do what government constantly forces them to do. They comply, and intensively moderate all content that passes through their hands. They do this in order to maintain their indispensable privilege of civil impunity.
Because of this inherent contradiction, further government regulation of the platform companies cannot solve the problem, but can only worsen it. Imposing additional government restrictions or liabilities to the state imposes government-influenced censorship and surveillance on society while continuing the platform oligopolies’ impunity and power grabbing in the private sphere. Therefore, the proposed amendment to the Intermediaries Guidelines Rules, 2018, creates more problems than they will solve.
Pressure to put the companies back in the same context of civil liability that other publishers face is therefore growing in the US. Despite the patent falsehood of the myth of the “mere conduit” as things now stand – such pressure will be resisted by all such companies to the bitter end. They will take refuge behind the idea of “free speech”, maintaining once again that they are the moral representatives of the users they actually spy on, turn to mulch and sell to advertisers based on their surveillance data.
Twitter was the prime originator of this idea that the oligopoly of surveillance publishing was the protector of free speech. But once Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed that politicians’ right to lie on Facebook was a basic part of the system of human rights, the events we are presently witnessing, in all their gossipy reek with sinister background music, became inevitable.
The way out of this swamp is improved social policy based on a better understanding of the internet. These centralised oligarchs of social media are unnecessary technical contrivances, not facts of nature. The internet was built for “federation”, not centralisation. In the design of the Net, anyone can offer services like social sharing to anyone else.
Anyone can have a web server to share chat, videos, pictures and online experiences with others, not just Facebook. Anyone can run an email server, not just Gmail. Anyone can run a videoconferencing server that works so robustly that it can meet the needs of higher education, as the professors at the IITs who use the BigBlueButton free software for that purpose can affirm. We don’t need Zoom, or local Zoom-like startups, surveilling our communications for ad data, or for any other purpose.
Government needs to foster federated services based on free software ecologies. By returning our technology to real modes of sharing already built into the design and culture of the internet, technology we can all use instead of the platforms, we can build a better and juster society than these giants would ever let us have. Putting science at the disposal of the people is an aspiration from India’s past that should be central to its future.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.