big tech, Cyber and Internet Governance, Cyber and Technology, Cyber Space, India, media and internet, Tech Regulations, U.S., USA and Canada

Accountable Tech: Will the US take a leaf out of the Indian Playbook?

2024 is a decisive year for democracy and the liberal order. 1.8 billion citizens in India and the United States, who together constitute nearly 1/4th of the world’s population, are going to elect their governments in the very same year. This will be the first such instance in a world increasingly mediated and intermediated by platforms, who will be crucial actors shaping individual choices, voter preferences, and indeed, outcomes at these hustings. It is therefore, important to recognise these platforms as actors and not just benign intermediaries.

Prime Minister Modi’s government, especially in its second term, has approached digital regulation with the objective of establishing openness, trust and safety, and accountability. In June this year, Union Minister of State for Electronics & Technology, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, invited public inputs on the draft amendments to the IT Rules 2021 with an ‘open, safe and trusted, accountable internet’ as the central area of focus.

Runaway platforms and cowboy capitalism are the big dangers to the sanctity of our elections and to the citizens’ acceptance of political outcomes.

This Indian aspiration for Accountable Tech must be an imperative for all liberal and open societies if we are to enrich the public sphere, promote innovation and inclusive participation, and indeed, defend democracy itself. If we fail to act now and act in unison, we could end up perverting the outcomes in 2024. Runaway platforms and cowboy capitalism are the big dangers to the sanctity of our elections and to the citizens’ acceptance of political outcomes. India has clearly seen the need for it and is striving to make large tech companies accountable to the geographies they serve. The latest comer who seems to have understood the importance of this is the United States of America.

On 8 September 2022, the White House convened a Listening Session on Tech Platform Accountability ‘with experts and practitioners on the harms that tech platforms cause and the need for greater accountability’. The session ‘identified concerns in six key areas: competition; privacy; youth mental health; misinformation and disinformation; illegal and abusive conduct, including sexual exploitation; and algorithmic discrimination and lack of transparency.’ Hopefully, this session will lead to a more contemporary regulatory and accountability framework that aligns with what is underway in India.

From private censorship and unaccountable conversations hosted by intermediaries to propagation of polarised views, all of them constitute a clear and present danger to democracies, and certainly to India and the US, who are among the most plural, open, and loud digital societies. Digital India is indeed going to be ground zero of how heterogenous, diverse, and open societies co-exist online and in the real world. The efforts of the Indian government to put together sensible regulation may actually benefit many more geographies and communities. If India can create a model that works in the complex human terrain of India, variants of it would be applicable across the world.

The efforts of the Indian government to put together sensible regulation may actually benefit many more geographies and communities.

It must also be understood that there is no single approach to manage platforms, even though there could be a wider and shared urge to promote openness, trust and safety, and accountability. The regulations that flow from this ambition are necessarily going to be contextual and country specific.

Hence, it is important that India, the US, and other large digital hubs coordinate and collaborate with each other to defend these universal principles even as they institute their own and region-specific regulations. For instance, policy architecture in the US will focus on managing platforms and technology companies operating under American law and consistent with their constitutional ethos. India, on the other hand, has the onerous task of ensuring that these same corporations adhere to Indian law and India’s own constitutional ethic.

India and the US lead the free world in terms of global social media users. As of January 2022, India had 329.65 million Facebook23.6 million Twitter, and 487.5 million WhatsApp (June 2021) users, while the US had 179.65 million Facebook, 76.9 million Twitter, and 79.6 million WhatsApp (June 2021) users. The online world is no longer a negligible part of society. Most people online see the medium as an agency additive and are keen to use it to further their views and influence others’ thinking. Of these, many are also influencers in their own localities. What transpires online now has a population scale impact. The mainstream media reads from it, social media trends define the next day’s headline and the debates on primetime television.

Policy architecture in the US will focus on managing platforms and technology companies operating under American law and consistent with their constitutional ethos.

Thus, the idea that one can be casual in managing content on these platforms is no longer feasible and will have deleterious consequences as recent developments have shown. Intermediary liability, that sought to insulate platforms from societal expectations, needs to be transformed to a notion of intermediary responsibility. It must now become a positive and a proactive accountability agenda where the platforms become a part of responsible governance and responsible citizenship.

Predictable regulation is also good for business and policy arbitrage harms corporate planning; so, platforms too have a stake in making their board rooms and leadership accountable. They must make their codes and designs contextual and stop hiding behind algorithmic decision-making that threatens to harm everyone, including their own future growth prospects. And this must be the ambition as we head into 2024–the year when technology could decide the fate of the free world.

big tech, Commentaries, Health care, media and internet, tech and media, USA and Canada

Revisiting Orientalism: Pandemic, politics, and the perceptions industry

The reordering of global power relations with the emergence of the East has begun to alter the West’s imagination, narratives and processes of self-identification. One discernible and strengthening trend arising from this changing political landscape is the increasing deployment of reductive stereotypes in the Western media, reminiscent of the colonial era when the West appropriated to itself the “burden of civilising the savage” East.

This effort to devalue, deplore and defame the East is now a recurrent theme and, perhaps, is an attempt to define oneself as distinct from the “other” in these troubled times. More insidiously, it is also deployed as a method of control and as a projection of a superior agency for achieving definitive economic and political goals. Simply put, the West seeks to tower above all by diminishing the East.

With its increasing economic influence (the pandemic notwithstanding), greater presence in world affairs, and an emerging and louder identity (with passionate supporters and detractors), India’s actions and policies have come under close and often critical scrutiny in powerful sections of the liberal media in the Atlantic system. This, by itself, is both natural and unsurprising.

What is disturbing is the near universal, vicious and negative portrayal of a land that is proud of its democratic politics (just as many other nations are), with a loud, disruptive and often aggressive media, and mobilisations led by communities that have toppled governments and, sometimes, catalysed perverse outcomes. It is a far from perfect, largely low-income country, with its fragilities debated with gusto at home and judged at the hustings repeatedly. What is curious about the naked aggression of the liberal Western media is its visible conflation of the domestic debates of their land with those in foreign lands; their sense of loss of their old place and space and the externalisation of grievance onto the “outsider”; and, their weaponisation of differences in much the same manner as their far Right counterparts.

Many a time, this “reduced” portrayal of India or other lands may be just journalistic or editorial carelessness. When it does happen, it must be called out and now is a good time to engage with this trend. The distasteful grammar, and gloomy imagery that dominates Western coverage on India says less about the country under the scanner and more about the malaise within media organisations as they move from editorial and ownership structures of the past to the digital and decentralised realities of today. The ugly underbelly of a section of the media continues to reveal itself as it engages with India and its efforts in coping with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over the last two months, organisations such as the BBCthe Atlantic , the Washington Post and the New York Times, among others, have run series of reductive commentaries on the state of India’s preparedness and its capacity to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. If we are being honest, they are being biased and blasé about it.

From alarmist commentaries (one report hypothesised that half of India could be infected!) and ridiculing the capacity and agency of the government, to deriving vicarious delight by focusing on well-known social inequities, their reporting has been “misery porn” with the spotlight being on India’s vulnerabilities and shortcomings in the fight against the pandemic. These are embellished through a cleverly selected presentation of events and facts; compelling images of poverty, denial, and deprivation; and, an overdose of virtue showboating.

The recurring portrayal of marginalised communities and migrants lacking economic, social, and political agency is presented as distinct from the values of esteem, equality and harmony, which form the bedrock of a “civilised” society. This narrative deliberately ignores the universal acceptance of these “ideals” to meet its singular objective — the perpetuation of a needless discourse of discord instead of a more worthwhile debate on the failure of globalisation and the extant economic models, something which is on stark display around the world.

This media narrative on India is perhaps not meant to only highlight inequality within the country because inequality is all prevalent around the world, more dazzlingly so in the West. It appears to be an attempt to distance a country and its mainstream from the civilised “self” which resides in the moral and emancipated world of publishers, editors and reporters. India and its large population are being painted as the proverbial “other” even as New York, the beacon of Western civilisation, is being scorched by the scourge.

Incidentally, and expectedly, many of these reports have been penned by native authors. This old trick affords plausible deniability to the publications against any allegations of White bias or racism, which is still resplendent in each of these reports. Nobel Laureate professor Amartya Sen and renowned pan-Africanist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon have argued how centuries of colonial subjugation and cultural infantalisation have left deep imprints on the self-image of the colonised, with the natives often viewing themselves and their cultures through the coloniser’s prism of prejudice. This phenomenon is one of colonialism’s most dehumanising byproducts and has now achieved viral potency alongside the pandemic.

Literary critic and linguist Namvar Singh, in his essay Decolonising the Indian Mind, alluded to this desperate urge that resides within Indian English-language writers to be accepted and understood by Western audiences as being part of their own identity continuum. The absurdity of the writings are, therefore, astounding. Just how absurd can be guessed from the assertion that a country with a per capita income of $2,000 must have the governance infrastructure and attributes similar to those with multiple times the resources and capacity — the leitmotif of much that is published on India. What is often forgotten in the “one village” discourse perpetuated by this class is that this village never was and never will be. This pandemic is the story of “millions of villages” seeking their own salvation as the “global ethic” promoted by the liberal media was the first victim of, and culprit-in-chief for, the pandemic and its heavy toll.

For a nation the size of a continent with many inherent challenges, India’s response has been bold and feeble at the same time, just as it has been universal and differentiated. While states such as Kerala and some others appear to have contained the crises well, other states with more complex and complicated politics are battling to keep this virus in check. There are shortcomings galore but most importantly, there is resolute intent across society and politics to fight the pandemic. States are adopting different models — unique to their local situation — drawing heavily from aspects as diverse as their specific cultural practices, topography, information systems and technology, along with government intervention.

Arguably, some states in India have outperformed some of the developed nations. A fair and balanced reportage should have presented these myriad experiences in combating the novel coronavirus, rather than just those narratives that build stereotypes and biases. In fact, the odd positive story out of India has the focused objective of establishing chaos and disorder as the norm — the outlier province with West-like predisposition, the snake-charmer and the bazaar magician, the bandar and the bandarlog, and other such notions lurk among words and between lines. This is reminiscent of the debates in 19th-century Britain with its praise of some quaint developments in India and its resolute determination to tame the East.

Celebrated political thinker Edward Said situated this impulse in the colonial domination of the non-West by the West, and the attendant perceptions of superiority that accompanied such domination. He argued that the West was able to manage, and even produce, the non-West by projecting itself as progressive, rational, civil and humanistic as opposed to the non-West. This reductive narrative was a purposeful one, created to morally justify the colonial enterprise and legitimise the civilising mission which was the “White man’s burden”.

This civilising purpose perpetuated through literature, popular culture and politics for over two centuries has not only informed and influenced the trajectory of colonial politics and popular Western imagination, but has also become embedded as the indisputable truth, forever colouring Western understanding of the Orient.

Starting with James Mill’s influential History of British India (1817) to Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927), diminished narratives on native agency, Professor Amartya Sen argues, have informed the views of generations of the Western intellectual and political elite, from Alexander Duff to Theodore Roosevelt and beyond. Works such as Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden, whom George Orwell called the “prophet of British Imperialism”, are considered reflective of this seemingly benign ethnocentric trajectory of colonial discourse.

French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas traces this bias to the West’s philosophical bearing, where identity is sought in the indurate logic of the self, rather than the expression of self in relation to difference. This predisposition manifests in a skewed representation of non-Western experiences. It is the cornerstone of the age-old identity debates that have troubled and defined human interactions. The sense of “Us versus Them”, or our superior agency versus theirs, proliferates the reports around Covid-19. The articles in the New York Times deploy a lack of empathy to create the “identity distance”. The Atlantic deploys lack of agency as a missing virtue, and social inequity defines the coverage of the BBC and the Washington Post in this instance. Unfortunately, the pandemic has a different tale to narrate.

A study of infection patterns in New York, for instance, presents vivid glimpses of elite depredations. The Black and marginalised communities have been significantly more affected than the rest, with one report assessing that Black Americans were thrice as likely to die from the infection than their White compatriots. The virus has indubitably driven a wedge between the economic haves and have-nots in the US, with significantly higher than average infections and deaths even among caregivers, who are people of colour, than their White counterparts. This isn’t very different from the Indian experience where the more impoverished are facing the fury of the pandemic.

Universally, and without exception, catastrophic events such as the raging pandemic tend to disproportionately affect the economically and socially marginalised more. In India, struggling migrants seek a path back to their hamlets. In the US, the rich and powerful escape to the Hamptons. This is an identity discourse of another variety that poses the same question for all humanity on the form and format of our economic agenda and priorities.

Colonial biases and stereotypes form an intractable part of the Western subconscious. However, the representation also needs to be viewed within a grander scheme. Beyond the articulation of the reductive occidental logic, it also offers a convenient moment for some to mobilise the newly dispossessed intelligentsia against the new nationalist urge that is shaping India’s political and economic discourse.

The story of the media reportage on India’s response to Covid-19 is, perhaps, not about the country’s efforts and its successes and failures. It is a narrative of perverse politics where the increasingly under threat elite opinion makers — the post-colonial custodians of virtue — are expressing (through their media) their contempt for those who do not see their path as either divine or preordained. This is political coverage, not one on the pandemic, and it has been scripted with the ink of exclusion.

This commentary originally appeared in Newslaundry.

big tech, Cyber and Internet Governance, media and internet

Collapsing frontiers: Between the real and the virtual

CyFy Africa 2019, CyFy Africa, Africa, Samir Saran, innovation, security, society, Morrocco

We are delighted to announce the second edition of CyFy Africa: The Conference on Technology, Innovation and Society. In 2013, we felt that emerging economies needed to have a voice and a platform to discuss the key issues agitating cyberspace. This gave birth to CyFy India. Eight editions and two continents later, we are very excited by the dynamism of this community and the conversations that have made CyFy a premier forum for all things digital.

Indeed, it was the overwhelmingly positive response to the first edition of CyFy Africa in 2018 that gave us the energy and enthusiasm to make this conference an annual affair. We are happy that we have more speakers, institutions and partners this year than we did in the previous year–and they have all contributed to the strength and diversity of our agenda.

It is not a stretch to say that cyberspace and emerging technologies are the most important drivers of change today. However, they are operating in a vacuum—international institutions have failed to provide governance propositions for cyberspace. Domestic regimes have not fared better. Around the world, there are some very polarising debates about data protection frameworks, human rights regimes and security policies. CyFy India began as an endeavour to find a consensus on these questions. Bringing this platform to Africa allows us to continue engaging in these debates with a wider community of stakeholders.

It is, however, a misnomer to think of CyFy as a technology conference alone—even though it may say so on the banner. Today, conversations on technology are as much discussions on human and social behaviour, about the management of organisations and states and even the governance of the international system as a whole. A discussion about technology encompasses conflict and compassion, trade and diplomacy, and war and peace. Today, the feedback loops between the real and the virtual are palpable and our agenda for CyFy Africa captures this phenomenon.

And there is a good reason for this: CyFy also represents a search for a new social contract. All new technologies disrupt existing relationships between citizen, community, business and state. Responses driven by fear and anxiety—which we see a lot of—will invariably lead to suboptimal outcomes. We remain—perhaps naively—a community of optimists. Our goal is to use technology to improve livelihoods, spur new innovation and to create resilient, free and secure societies.

Of course, creating such societies requires partnership and dialogue—which is hard to come by in a generation that focuses on the “I”. Our objective with CyFy Africa is to reach out; to create new possibilities for the transfer off ideas, knowledge and solutions. We seek to create omnidirectional flows that transcend 20th century divides of North, South, East and West. We want to see technology valleys emerge from new communities and societies that are capable of providing innovations and solutions to all.

Here in Africa, and back in India, we see a burning desire to do this—to not only leapfrog constraints and obstacles, but to change lives around the world. CyFy seeks to give voice to this optimism for technology. Lazy incumbencies must give way to new actors, voices and propositions. In an age of disruption, we have tried to bring together the disrupters; the innovators and entrepreneurs that are shaping a new world all together.

Now that we have everyone gathered here in the beautiful city of Tangier, Morocco, we hope that the conversations you all take part in over next three days will fulfil these objectives. We would like to see new partnerships and engagements between individuals and institutions who may never have otherwise met. Above all, we hope that CyFy Africa becomes a platform for consensus building, located as it is at the intersection of continents and cultures.