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A Challenge to Corporate ‘Raj’

By  Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

On June 15, the Anti-trust regulator in the UK announced it has opened a year-long probe into Google’s and Apple’s mobile ecosystems (iOS and Android) suspecting a possible stifling of competition.

Facebook is facing a challenge in the European Union on the issue of use of cookies to track users without their prior consent. Its user privacy infringement through use of cookies is in direct breach of EU data protection regulations.

Tik Tok is being sued by a Parents Group in the Netherlands for illegally accessing data on their children and compromising their privacy and safety. The UK similarly is suing the company over the use of data on millions of children.

India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has sought a report from Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram regarding posts on these sites offering illegal adoption of children tragically orphaned from the Corona pandemic. A Parliamentary Committee has asked Twitter to appear before it to discuss safeguarding of citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social media platforms.

Across the world, with misuse of social networking sites posing a threat not only to individual but also to national security, social media behemoths are at last facing extra scrutiny for everything ranging from mergers, acquisitions and monopoly behavior, to privacy and free speech infringement.

While other countries are recognizing and taking legal steps to counter the threat, the US has been slow to take off. Some experts and legislators here have questioned whether these social media platforms are fulfilling their obligation as neutral digital public forums.  Among them, liberals have expressed concern these sites are not doing enough to counter violent or false speech, while conservatives have argued that the platforms are unfairly restricting and banning public access to potentially valuable conservative speech.

Existing federal law does not offer recourse for users seeking to challenge a social media provider’s decision about whether and how to present a user’s content. Legal challenges to these sites remain largely unsuccessful absent federal law provisions that can make these private companies accountable for violating free speech.

Claims against social media companies are anyway barred by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity to social media providers, both for decisions to host content created by others, and for actions taken “voluntarily” and “in good faith” to restrict access to “objectionable” material. Those fine but ambiguous terms provide enough elbow room to the companies to act freely, even irresponsibly.

India’s challenge to the mighty Social Media Empire Raj has accelerated with Twitter losing the coveted “safe harbor” immunity over its failure to appoint statutory officers on the company’s roll in line with the new IT rules.

But unrest among users is growing with liberals complaining not enough is done to exclude harmful incendiary and hate content posted by conservatives, and the latter protesting the bias against conservatives of the almost wholly liberal Silicon Valley controlled media platforms that work against Republican Party and favor Democrats.

Trump, who had often spoken against Section 230, did issue an executive order directing the executive branch to ask independent rule-making agencies whether new regulations could be placed on the social media companies. But that symbolic order meant little, with Trump’s own access to the Twitter and Facebook platforms ironically getting blocked!

That these bans are more political than principled is clear from Facebook’s recently announced  decision to ensure Trump stays barred until slightly beyond the midterm elections at which point the company will revisit the ban’s extension. Only a fool would believe it will not be extended once again to prevent Trump from using his powerful internet potential to dislodge Biden. Hardly innocent, Facebook’s and Twitter’s actions clearly are a favor to Biden and Democrats.

While as Biden supporters we may welcome that outcome, regardless of our party affiliation, we should be horrified at the stranglehold placed by social media mandarins on public discourse and behavior. The selective use of banning in favor of one person, party, or cause is not only despicable but scary. That such unrestrained power of censorship can impact not only our politics and elections, but also destroy vital other sectors of our life such as public health, education, religious pursuit, and the economy, as was clearly demonstrated in the wake of the Corona pandemic, makes the threat to each of us personal.

As pressure intensifies for making these companies liable not only for third-party content posted on the platform but also for their biased interference with and manipulation of speech, it has finally provoked some Congressional action. Twitter and Facebook have been questioned in several Congressional committee hearings over their impartiality and excessive power to restrict free speech, and their ability to monopolize public discourse and commerce. Republican Senator Josh Hawley introduced a bill last June that would eliminate the Section 230 immunity unless tech companies submitted to an external audit certifying that their content moderation practices were politically neutral. But further progress is stalled on that and other legislative ventures due to difficulty in finding cross-party support.

Lobbyists meanwhile have aggressively sought to derail any attempt to legislate reform and placed a stranglehold on lawmakers by the corrupting power of money. Elected representatives and even bureaucrats in America in many cases depend directly or indirectly on the financial backing, charity, and goodwill of those powerful social media companies. If you dare to cross the imaginary and ambiguous red line they have arbitrarily set, you get cancelled, de-platformed, and de-funded.

At state level luckily, Florida’s Governor and legislative leaders have announced they intend to set new requirements for social media companies, including clearing the way for lawsuits and financial penalties against platforms that violate the requirements. The Texas Attorney General’s request to Twitter to explain their content guidelines is another example of state initiatives aimed at restraining social media platforms gaining momentum.

The discourse around Corona as we all noticed was and is heavily controlled, with the media platforms suspending or banning contrarian views on anything to do with Corona’s origins, diagnosis, therapeutics, and mitigation. By arbitrarily censoring whatever clashed with the versions advocated by the official infectious disease bureaucracy and scientists, they abused public trust. Worse, they likely colluded with the bureaucracy and the scientists to perpetuate one-sided discourse, as seen in the recently revealed email exchanges between National Institutes of Health’s Dr. Fauci and Facebook’s Zuckerberg.

After 18 months of highly manipulated information dissemination on Corona, as the Wuhan origin of the virus theory is becoming plausible, and some treatment therapies that were outlawed by the media companies as “Trump-speak” are beginning to be accepted as beneficial, there is ground not merely for recrimination but also monetary compensation for the socio-economic damages caused to the global community from excessive use of discretionary power and abuse of authority by the media.

President Biden’s appointment of Lina Khan, who has been a fierce critic of Big Tech’s market monopoly, to head the Federal Trade Commission is a promising development. But her impact is likely to be more on market fairness than on challenging suppression of free speech. (Photo courtesy AP)

Biden’s appointment of Lina Khan, who has been a fierce critic of Big Tech’s market monopoly, to head the Federal Trade Commission is a promising development. But her impact is likely to be more on market fairness than on challenging suppression of free speech. The same possibly is true of the multi-bill legislation introduced on June 10 2021 in the US House, which if passed would be the most daring Congressional venture to curtail the power of Amazon, Apple,  Facebook and Google over online commerce, information, and entertainment.

In contrast, India’s challenge to the mighty Social Media Empire Raj has accelerated with Twitter losing the coveted “safe harbor” immunity over its failure to appoint statutory officers on the company’s roll in line with the new IT rules. Its top executives, including the country managing director, could face police questioning and criminal liability under Indian Penal Code over ‘unlawful’ and ‘inflammatory’ content posted on the platform by any user.

One can imagine Google, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram etcetera facing a similar fate.

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Based in California, the published author contributes opeds and essays regularly to  The South Asian Times.

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India Latest News

WhatsApp sues Indian govt over chat ‘traceability’

New Delhi: Taking the user privacy war to the court over new IT rules, Facebook-owned WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against the Indian government in the Delhi High Court, saying that user privacy is in its DNA and requiring messaging apps to “trace” chats undermines people’s right to privacy.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) had asked social media platforms to abide by the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 by May 25, or face strict action.

A WhatsApp spokesperson said that requiring messaging apps to “trace” chats is the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent on WhatsApp.

“It would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermines people’s right to privacy. We have consistently joined civil society and experts around the world in opposing requirements that would violate the privacy of our users,” the spokesperson stressed.

The company said that in the meantime, “we will also continue to engage with the Government of India on practical solutions aimed at keeping people safe, including responding to valid legal requests for the information available to us”.

The Indian government was yet to react to the lawsuit.

The tussle between Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook and the Union government has reached its nadir, with cops raiding Twitter offices in the pandemic earlier this week over the ToolKit controversy.

WhatsApp has gone to the court as the deadline to comply with the new IT (intermediary) rules meant for big social media platforms in India ended on May 25.

WhatsApp said that new rules infringe on users’ privacy.

The MeitY had announced its draft new IT (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules for social media platforms on February 25.

As per the new rules, the social media platforms will have to remove offending content within 36 hours after a government directive or a legal order.

Twitter asks IT Ministry for 3-month extension on new rules

New Delhi: With WhatsApp suing the Indian government over the new IT rules for social media platforms, Twitter requested the IT Ministry to consider a minimum of three-month extension in order for the company to implement the new intermediary guidelines.

Twitter, which witnessed a police raid on its offices in Delhi and Gurugram early this week related to the alleged Congress toolkit controversy, said that it reaffirms that Twitter continues to accept grievances from users and law enforcement via its existing grievance redressal channel available under the new IT Rules.

Stressing that it will strive to comply with applicable law in India, a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement that right now, “we are concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve”.

“We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules,” Twitter said in its first reaction after the police raids on its offices.

Need to maintain law & order: IT Minister

Electronics & IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has said the government is committed to the right to privacy, but simultaneously it also has to maintain law and order and ensure national security.

“The Government of India is committed to ensure the Right of Privacy to all its citizens but at the same time it is also the responsibility of the government to maintain law and order and ensure national security,” an official statement quoted the IT Minister Prasad as saying.

The statement said that the government respects the right of privacy and has no intention to violate it when WhatsApp is required to disclose the origin of a particular message.

It however, added that as per all established judicial dictum, no fundamental right, including the right to privacy, is absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions.

“The requirements in the Intermediary Guidelines pertaining to the first originator of information are an example of such a reasonable restriction,” it said.

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Latest News USA

Facebook Oversight Board upholds ban on Trump’s accounts

San Francisco:  “The Board has upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7, 2021 to restrict then-President Donald Trump’s access to posting content on his Facebook page and Instagram account,” the Facebook Oversight Board (FOB) said in an announcement Wednesday.

“Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Mr. Trump’s accounts on January 6 and extending that suspension on January 7,” the FOB noted, adding that it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an “indefinite” suspension.

“It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored,” it said.

The FOB required Facebook to revisit the case and then either restore Trump’s account, make the ban permanent or define a suspension for a set period of time.

It also made policy recommendations for Facebook to implement in developing clear, necessary, and proportionate policies that promote public safety and respect freedom of expression.

The FOB said that it found that the two posts by Trump on January 6 severely violated Facebook’s Community Standards and Instagram’s Community Guidelines prohibiting praise or support of people engaged in violence.

“The Board found that, in maintaining an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action, Mr. Trump created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible. At the time of Mr. Trump’s posts, there was a clear, immediate risk of harm and his words of support for those involved in the riots legitimized their violent actions,” it said in the announcement.

The FOB is a panel of about 20 former political leaders, human rights activists and journalists picked by Facebook to deliberate the company’s content decisions.

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Latest News USA

Pramila Jayapal named vice chair of key congressional subcommittee

Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal has been named vice chair of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law.

Chennai-born Jayapal, 55, from the Democratic Party, will oversee the subcommittee’s urgent work on antitrust, big tech, reining in anti-competitive behavior, helping prevent monopolistic practices, protecting a free press, and allowing innovation to thrive.

Jayapal, the only Indian-American woman in the House of Representatives, has been a leading voice on the committee, where she most recently played an active role in conducting America’s first major congressional antitrust investigation in decades, a media release said.

“I am honored to lead the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law at a pivotal moment in which we must write the next chapter of antitrust law,” Jayapal said in a statement.

“That’s how we will finally hold dominant tech platforms accountable while advocating for workers, stopping hate and misinformation, and protecting a free press,” she said.

“By reasserting the power of Congress and using our historic investigation as a roadmap, we will continue the work necessary to rein in anti-competitive behavior, help prevent monopolistic practices, protect local and independent journalism, and allow innovation to thrive,” Jayapal said on Wednesday.

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India Latest News

India comes up with stricter norms for social media, OTT

New Delhi: The Union government on Thursday came up with new stringent guidelines for social media platforms along with code of ethics for over-the-top (OTT) platforms and digital media.

Addressing the media, the Union Minister for Electronics and IT, Ravi Shankar Prasad said that social media platforms will be classified under two categories – social media intermediaries and significant social media intermediaries – with the latter being subject to greater obligations.

The government will soon notify a list of significant social media intermediaries soon, the minister said, adding that platforms with a “significant” number of users will be classified as significant social media intermediaries. A benchmark number would be set for the classification, he said.

The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 mandate that the intermediaries, including social media intermediaries must establish a grievance redressal mechanism for receiving resolving complaints from the users or victims.

Intermediaries will have to appoint a Grievance Officer to deal with such complaints and share the name and contact details of such officers. Grievance Officer shall acknowledge the complaint within twenty-four hours and resolve it within fifteen days from its receipt, said an official statement.

As per the new norms “an intermediary upon receiving actual knowledge in the form of an order by a court or being notified by the appropriate government should not host or publish any information which is prohibited under any law in relation to the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, public order, friendly relations with foreign countries etc.”

The norm would be applicable to offences under which an offender would be punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than five years.

Intermediary shall not be required to disclose the contents of any message or any other information to the first originator, said the statement.

The platforms would also have to publish a monthly compliance report mentioning the details of complaints received and action taken on the complaints as well as details of contents removed proactively by the significant social media intermediary.

Users must be provided an adequate and reasonable opportunity to dispute the action taken by the intermediary, as per the new norms.

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India Latest News

Action to be taken if Twitter, FB platforms are misused: Govt

New Delhi: The government on Thursday categorically cautioned social media platforms against spreading fake news or anything inciting violence, as Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said action will be taken if Indian laws were flouted.

“There is freedom of speech but Article 19A says that this is subject to reasonable restrictions,” the Minister for Communications, Electronics & Information Technology told in the Rajya Sabha as he reminded platforms like Twitter and Facebook to comply with Indian rules while carrying out business.

“We respect social media a lot, it has empowered common people. Social media has a big role in the Digital India program. However, if social media are misused to spread fake news and violence, then action will be taken on the misuse of social media in India whether Twitter or else,” said Prasad.

He said all the social media platforms will have to adhere to the constitution of India. The Indian constitution allows criticism of the government and the Prime Minister, but spreading fake news will not be allowed, he said.

Prasad said, “We have flagged certain issues to Twitter and social media has to take into consideration of the Indian Laws if they want to do business in the country”.

The Indian government has expressed displeasure over Twitter’s delayed compliance on its order to remove “provocative” tweets amid the ongoing farmers’ protests.

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Latest News USA

At stake, the future of democracy

By Binayak Dasgupta

The first chapter in the plot that culminated with the siege of the US Capitol by Donald Trump‘s supporters on January 6 was written over four years ago when, on December 4, 2016, a young man armed with an assault rifle walked into a pizza joint in Washington DC. He was led to believe that the basement was home to a paedophilia ring, run by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief.

This was the first time the US had come face to face in real life with a virtual cult of conspiracy theorists who believed that Trump was secretly waging a war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media. This would later evolve into what is known as QAnon.

The followers of QAnon now believe that the 2020 election was rigged to stop Trump. In almost every media and social media video from the Capitol building, it is clear that the mob was made up of people who shared this conviction, and that they, ultimately, thought they were being patriotic.

What unfolded then was the manifestation of an epistemic crisis. In a November 2017 piece in the Vox, journalist David Roberts described this problem as “a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening”.

This dangerous split in the perception of facts has continued to spread and grow through the digital veins and nodes of not just the underground internet but mainstream social media. None of the networks are untouched, whether it is Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, and their interventions have — as evidenced by the scenes that played out during the congressional confirmation of the election result — achieved nothing.

Many studies have shown that Trump’s rise to popularity has in part fuelled, as well as having been fuelled by, a rise in white nationalism. Racial fault lines have historically run deep within the US. But they appear to have widened during the closing years of the country’s first black President’s term.

It was during this time — roughly 2008 to 2014 — when most of the social media platforms crossed the inflexion point in user base to be able to influence physical world conversation. Facebook crossed 200 million users in 2009 and the same year, YouTube reported the billionth time a video was watched on its website. This was not just an American phenomenon — the world went through a digital revolution.

On the face of it, this digital revolution has been free of cost for the individual, while becoming one of the most profitable businesses in the history of mankind. Behind this success is the wonder of the algorithm — computer code that is designed to make sure you spend more time on a service, helping maximize advertising revenue.

Algorithms do this by exposing users to people and content that they are most likely to engage with, invariably creating echo chambers of thought. A notable example of this is YouTube’s now-abandoned recommendations feature that, the company admitted, could have directed people to “videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11”.

Today, Holocaust deniers defy a past that unarguably took place, anti-vaxxers threaten a present consumed by a pandemic, and groups such as QAnon jeopardize the future of democracy. Common among the them is the diminishing of knowledge, institutional disciplines and experience — of history, which has chronicled the Holocaust in painful detail; of science, which has stopped diseases with vaccines that today require painstaking safeguards; and of democratic theory, that has evolved over centuries to find a delicate balance between the State and the people.

Conspiracy theories are, to be sure, a part of what motivated the mob at the US Capitol. But it was a large part and, while belief in conspiracy theories is not new and has existed for centuries, technology has helped bridge the distance between the fringe and the centre-stage. This has now triggered previously unseen interventions by tech companies. Trump has now been banned from Twitter and Facebook services. Amazon Web Services has kicked off conspiracy theory hotbed and QAnon den Parler from its cloud servers.

These steps are likely to have a noticeable impact in the immediate. But whether they will help stem the larger spread of alternate facts as reality is uncertain. At stake is the nature of modern democracy, which, at the very least, requires a shared perception of facts.

(The article appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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Business Latest News

How Big Tech helped millions traverse the year

Intro: Despite a growing antitrust scrutiny that poses a big existential threat to technology companies, Big Tech helped millions of workers and children navigate the pandemic with digital tools, virtual meetings, video games and content streaming in 2020

1. Big Tech

Technology emerged a winner during the pandemic as cloud and connectivity services thrived in a stay-at-home world. Netflix revenue jumped 73% in the most recent three quarters. Video conferencing service Zoom’s sales soared 307%. And Amazon was among the biggest winners, with sales leaping $67 billion, or 35%, in the first three quarters of the year.

The five most valuable companies — Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google owner Alphabet and Facebook are now worth more than $7.5 trillion combined.

What’s next: Although the disputes aren’t likely to get resolved anytime soon, legal and regulatory action to rein in Big Tech has become a rare bipartisan issue in Washington

2. Bitcoin

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies plunged alongside the stock market shortly after Covid-19 ground the US economy to a standstill in March. But bitcoin (ARSC) has come roaring back to hit new all-time highs near $30,000 since then. Prices have more than tripled this year.

What’s next: Bitcoin may become a more acceptable form of digital payments in 2021 now that fintech powerhouses Square (SQ) and PayPal (PYPL) are both letting users buy, sell and hold bitcoin.

3. Video games

Consumers were stuck at home this year, and video games gave players an opportunity to pass the time alone while still interacting with their friends. That helped the video games industry boom this year, from sold out Nintendo Switch consoles, to record growth on streaming platforms, including Facebook Gaming and Amazon’s Twitch.

Google’s video platform YouTube logged its best year ever in 2020 with more than 100 billion hours in gaming content viewed.

What’s next: With PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S and X, experts predict the gaming industry is set to keep growing in 2021.

4. Online and big retailers

Amazon and other online retailers were among the biggest winners of the pandemic, as people grew cautious about leaving their homes. But big-box stores, such as Walmart, Target and Costco , also won big, as shoppers flocked to stores where they could get all their shopping done in one go.

What’s next: Big retailers aren’t expected to lose any ground once the pandemic ends, even if the pace of sales growth slows down. They ramped up their digital operations in 2020 and are well-positioned to succeed in the future.

5. Creators

Creators have been finding ways to keep their content fresh and innovative throughout 2020, especially during the pandemic. The platforms that support these creators have benefited significantly.

Twitch downloads jumped 61% worldwide from January to November. Patreon, a social and membership platform for content creators, grew 43%.

What’s next: Social giants like Facebook and Snapchat have taken note, launching their own versions of popular creator platforms like TikTok.

(File photos)
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Business Latest News

Partnership with Jio to help support millions of SMBs: Zuckerberg

New Delhi: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday said its partnership with Jio Platforms will help support millions of small businesses in India.

Zuckerberg made the remark during a conversation with Mukesh Ambani, Chairman and Managing Director, Reliance Industries at the first Facebook Fuel for India 2020 event.

“At Facebook, we are in the business of serving small businesses. And nowhere is this more true than in India,” the Facebook CEO said.

“With more than 60 million small businesses and millions of people around the country relying on them for jobs — these small businesses form a big part of what our partnership with Jio can serve here,” he said.

In April this year, Facebook announced investment of Rs 43,574 crore in Jio Platforms for a 9.99 per cent stake.

Zuckerberg said that supporting small businesses has become more important in view of the Covid-19 induced impact on the economy.

“One of the big opportunities I see with the partnership with Jio Platforms, is the role that we can play together in supporting the millions of small businesses in India – especially now with the impact that Covid is having,” he said.

“It is accelerating the move for a lot of businesses from physical storefronts to digital.”

Ambani said that technology will democratize wealth and value creation for individuals and small businesses in India.

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