Month: August 2020

Social media platforms can’t be a law unto themselves

Social Media Platforms, Communities, safety, societies, debates, politics, US Election, monitoring, safety, sovereign, boards, superfluous

The US elections are witnessing heated, contested, loud and aggressive debates, with media (new and old) donning visibly partisan robes. One such media report has sought to pull India and Indians into the middle of the Trump Vs Biden campaign battle.

First, there is a simple fact that often eludes social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook as well as the easily outraged proponents of the newly-minted ‘cancel culture’. Social media platforms may have their own terms and rules of engagement and content monitoring; it is their prerogative. But those terms and rules cannot—and, more importantly, must not—be allowed to supersede the law as framed by sovereign states, especially democracies, where these platforms operate.

Social media platforms may have their own terms and rules of engagement and content monitoring; it is their prerogative. But those terms and rules cannot—and, more importantly, must not—be allowed to supersede the law as framed by sovereign states, especially democracies, where these platforms operate

For example, the law as it exists in India, based on its constitutional and penal provisions, overrides terms and rules framed by social media companies based anywhere in the world, operating within its territory. After all, if these companies ensure compliance with Indian law in order to conduct business, equal compliance would be in order for content monitoring and management. There cannot be two separate arrangements.

It is necessary to underscore this point to unclutter the debate triggered by an article in the Wall Street Journal, which imputed that Facebook has shown extraordinary preference for the BJP on account of the political bias of some of its employees. Facts do not bear out the newspaper’s contention, which is of a piece with what is termed as ‘cancel culture’, where only those views that are endorsed by a ‘select few’ may be allowed a public platform. The ensuing shouting match needs to be contested with a tempered view on the more substantial issue of a platform’s self-assumed supreme right and absolute authority to decide what can and cannot be allowed to be said.

It is quite obvious that the upcoming US presidential election and the attempt to coerce platforms into becoming an extension of the campaign for or against the incumbent Administration—which is no secret within and outside social media corporate offices—instigated the outrage against Facebook’s alleged political bias in India. It is a proxy that prepares the ground for what lies ahead.

It is quite obvious that the upcoming US presidential election and the attempt to coerce platforms into becoming an extension of the campaign for or against the incumbent Administration—which is no secret within and outside social media corporate offices

But since it involves India, and Indian users of Facebook and all other platforms, let us locate this debate within the Indian context and focus on three crucial questions surrounding platform accountability and compliance.

First, what is the Indian consensus on what constitutes freedom of expression online? It certainly must not be what Facebook, Twitter, et al deem fit. The Constitution of India guarantees its citizens certain fundamental rights that cannot be encroached upon except under special circumstances and that too only by the state, not an external agency. Article 19 (2) qualifies freedom of speech and expression with “reasonable restrictions … in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.” More often than not, these restrictions are followed in the breach, unless there is a specific complaint.

India’s judiciary has intervened to either uphold or strike down these restrictions depending on their application. In other words, there are no specific, watertight definitions guiding Article 19 (2). By and large, all speech, unless it violates India’s penal code, is held to be free. Perceptions and legal positions have changed over time. For instance, DH Lawrence, once held to be ‘obscene’ by the courts, is now a part of university curricula. Barring the early years of the Republic, the restriction on speech that may harm relations with ‘friendly countries’ has never been imposed. The Supreme Court’s Hindutva judgement has elasticised political speech. ‘Hate speech’ is broadly defined as speech that promotes enmity between communities while ‘violent speech’ is understood to be speech that calls for or poses an imminent threat of violence. There are separate laws to deal with both and judgements to guide their application.

Now, for some recent examples of free speech, social media responses and the consequences. Last week, P Naveen, a relative of Congress MLA Akhanda Srinivasa Murthy in Karnataka, posted content—in response to another post—which was deemed to be “anti-Islam” by a mob that ran riot, burning down the legislator’s house and ransacking two police stations. The police opened fire; four people lost their lives. It could be argued that had Facebook been alert and ‘unbiased’ in its content monitoring, then it would have pulled down the provocative post that prompted the response by Naveen, thus, nipping all mischief in the bud. But since the first post remained untouched, could that be imputed to Facebook’s bias towards a specific community and against another? At which point does accountability come in?

Also last week, Twitter locked the account of JNU professor and well-known public figure Anand Ranganathan for posting a verse from the Quran that called for “punishment” of those who “abuse Allah and his messenger” in the context of the Bengaluru riots. Twitter has said that Anand Ranganathan’s account has been locked because his tweet violated the platform’s rules that explicitly state, “You may not promote violence against, threaten, or harass other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.” How can something that can be freely stated, either in writing or verbally—in Indian media because there is no legal bar on it—be out of bounds on Twitter? Do Twitter rules supersede Indian laws?

Which brings us to the second question: What should be the operating law for social media platforms? Is it the law of India or is it the law of the country where the parent company is based? Or, more ominously, is it the ‘law’ as framed by the company, regardless of the law(s) of either the parent or the host country. With respect to the brouhaha over Facebook and its alleged bias, were company officials pushing back against Indian law or were they pushing back against a presumptive ‘law’ to (selectively) govern speech globally? It is this grey area in which social media platforms operate that creates fertile ground for mischief and indeed for political capture and gaming. It is imperative that there be no ambiguity in this regard, especially because it concerns the rights of citizens.

The third big question that arises is: What recourse do we have when someone – an individual, an institution, or the state – seems to be erring on the side of hate speech? Will the errant entity or individual be held to account by law or by dissent? As of now, it is unclear as to exactly which authority we are appealing. Without a framework to approach and remedy cases like these, Indian social media users will remain subject to the whims and fancies of content platforms, who will arbitrarily decide for themselves what is the ‘common good’, often with scant regard for the law of the land. For instance, if Twitter were to ban the account of an Opposition leader, it would prompt cries of censorship. On the other hand, if a ruling party leader were to be banned, should it be seen as acting under pressure?

It is for the state, a sovereign entity, to respond (in keeping with its extant laws) if there is a speech violation, intentionally or otherwise. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter cannot be allowed to arrogate to themselves this role and render the sovereign power of the state meaningless. As mentioned earlier, the Constitution allows only for the State to restrict citizens’ rights in extraordinary situations, and even that is open to judicial scrutiny. If we were to allow Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to have the executive power to infringe upon our freedoms, it would create space and scope for them to be used as political tools by those in power or out of power. That would be against all canons of national sovereignty and fly in the face of freedom.

Therefore, social media platforms cannot, and must not, interfere in the domestic debates and political processes of a sovereign country. If cause and effect (to a social media post) are limited to a local jurisdiction, content platforms cannot, and must not, get involved, except for providing evidence to aid law enforcement, if called upon by the courts. If the effect of social media content is transnational, then international agreements between the countries concerned may be used for law-enforcement application.

Social media platforms cannot, and must not, interfere in the domestic debates and political processes of a sovereign country

The noise over Facebook’s alleged bias aside, we are talking about the sanctity, integrity and safety of societies, communities and countries. Sovereign states, more so in democracies, are responsible for these areas of public life and are accountable to national institutions as well as citizens. Social media and content platforms, however, are accountable to nobody but their boards. They are far removed from the concerns of the user whose time and patronage they actively solicit.

Corporate governance cannot be restricted to the non-digital world; it must now extend to digital platforms. Platforms should be held both answerable and actionable for their decisions, which cannot be unfettered from the law of the land where they operate. Everything else is superfluous.

Britain should shed its China obsession to seize the moment in the Indo-Pacific

Post-Brexit Britain needs to move away from its China-centric policy and step up trade engagements in the region, which offers potential for win-win economic gains. London should also look to join its allies, including the US, India, Australia in the support of regional security to manage the risks posed by Beijing

 Britain, Indo-Pacific, Singapore, China-centric, Engagements, region, Australia, regional security
Source: Wikimedia Commons

We are living through the Indo-Pacific Century – a moment of great opportunity in world history when the balance of power and wealth is shifting eastward for the first time in hundreds of years.

But 2020 has offered proof that this century will also be a challenging one.

First, the coronavirus pandemic has been the biggest shock to the global economy for decades. Even countries that have avoided the worst of the public health crisis have seen significant negative economic effects. The disease has served to underline how globalisation has connected all of us, for better and for worse.

Second, the pandemic has been accompanied by a more assertive China. In recent months, Chinese troops have had a bloody face-off with India along the border between the two countries in the Himalayas, while Beijing continues to aggressively press its claims in the South China Sea – all this amid its extension of control over Hong Kong through the controversial national security law.

These factors may have contributed to Britain’s decision to ban Huawei from its 5G network, as Australia did earlier. Telecommunications will play an increasingly central role in developing closer security partnerships, and Britain’s choice is a clear indication of the country’s willingness to continue to work shoulder to shoulder with the United States and its other partners. The UK is not alone in this realisation. India, the US and Japan have also banned, or are considering banning, Chinese apps.

This context prompts a vitally important question. How can Britain better partner and work with countries in a region spanning an area extending from India to Japan and reaching down to Australia and the South Pacific, to partake in the growth-led opportunities and manage the risks posed by a prosperous and expansive China?
A London think-tank, Policy Exchange, has announced an Indo-Pacific Commission that we are part of, to examine these issues. Together with other experienced policymakers from around the world, we will discuss and recommend new approaches Britain and its allies can take to further the rules-based order across this strategically important region. Naturally, for the UK, this interest also reflects a new post-Brexit awareness of the importance and potential of the Indo-Pacific, as London looks beyond the European Union to strengthen alliances and explore new markets.
Our advice to Britain, though it applies to other countries, would start with two basic ideas. First, avoid being too China-centric. As the commission’s chairman, former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, has observed, a focus on China alone – both its positives and negatives – would be to overlook the myriad opportunities for trade and other cooperation on political, defence and diplomatic issues with countries including Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia and Singapore in the Indo-Pacific region. Think, for example, of the opportunities that the City of London could explore in South and Southeast Asia in financial innovation, in which it is a world leader.
Second, Britain should reimagine its place in the world order. It might have retreated from “East of Suez” more than half a century ago but this is the time to step up. As the world’s fifth-largest economy, there are potential win-win economic gains to be made in the Indo-Pacific; for example, in entering existing multilateral trade agreements, as well as bilateral agreements with Australia, India, Japan and other growing Asian economies.
Britain also remains a leader in innovation and technology, as shown by the phenomenal global success of entrepreneurs like James Dyson, whose company is now headquartered in Singapore and whose technology and products are considered a global standard for future-oriented innovation. More recently, the leadership role of the UK can be seen by the strides Oxford and Astra-Zeneca are making on a Covid-19 vaccine. Astra-Zeneca has partnered with the Pune-based Serum Institute of India, which is the largest vaccine maker in the world by volume, to manufacture 1 billion doses of this vaccine.
Britain also remains a leader in innovation and technology, as shown by the phenomenal global success of entrepreneurs like James Dyson, whose company is now headquartered in Singapore and whose technology and products are considered a global standard for future-oriented innovation
This is a precursor to the potential of partnership between Britain and the Indo-Pacific countries. This leadership – bolstered by the fact the UK is home to no fewer than six of the top 50 universities in the world – means that the country has the potential to be the knowledge lab for the Indo-Pacific economies, where many young people still see the UK as their key destination for education and business.
Just as the UK should build on existing multilateral trade agreements in the Indo-Pacific, it should also look to join its allies in the support of regional security and defence. What are the most effective ways for London to join partners and allies – notably India, Australia and Japan – to strengthen regional security through defence engagement and presence? One answer can be found in the recent news that British officials are debating whether to base one of the UK’s new aircraft carriers in the Far East, where it would conduct military activities with allies including the US and Japan.

Just as the UK should build on existing multilateral trade agreements in the Indo-Pacific, it should also look to join its allies in the support of regional security and defence

This, of course, builds on what is already happening, with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force conducting trilateral exercises recently in the Philippine Sea with the Australian Defence Force and the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group. Britain, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council – and a country with existing defence arrangements with Singapore, India, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and Japan – can play a role here, not least in the context of the contested South China Sea. Britain has an opportunity in the Indian Ocean as well. It should seize this new geopolitical moment and participate in the shaping of a new coalition along with India and the US.

This commentary originally appeared in South China Morning Post

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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