* Editorial 2

Besides tech solutions, policy discussions involving the public can help fight fake news

The Supreme Court recently stressed the need to find a balance between the right to online privacy and the right of the state to detect people who use the web to spread panic and commit crimes. Are current regulations and the nature of Internet platforms tuned to find this balance? In a conversation moderated by Srinivasan Ramani, Arun Mohan Sukumar and Raman Chima take stock of the issues involved and offer some suggestions. Excerpts:

Arun, in the last few years there has been an explosion in the use of messaging apps such as WhatsApp. Concomitantly, there has been an increase in fake news and rumour-mongering leading to lynchings. Are the steps taken by WhatsApp to combat this enough or should it do more?

Arun Mohan Sukumar: When you ask us what are the steps, we should also ask whether these are the steps that we should take in the first place. I think many would agree that some of these problems have nothing to do with the platforms themselves and cannot be resolved by technological solutions.

Fake news is not something that has been catalysed in the digital age alone; it has been a long-standing problem. We have had very little success in trying to persuade people not to believe certain stuff. And I’m not entirely sure whether the solution to this problem necessarily lies in technology.

WhatsApp, to its credit, tried to limit forwards to five people and the norm has been tested. It has been piloted in other parts of the world as well. WhatsApp is looking at India not just as a booming market but also as a place where it can pilot some of these solutions and test them out in other emerging markets as well.

If you take uncomfortable situations developing in another part of the world, Facebook and Twitter were fairly quick to acknowledge the disinformation operations that were backed by the Chinese government in Hong Kong. This came out in a simultaneous way, documenting instances where state-sponsored elements were perpetrating fake news and sophisticated disinformation campaigns against protesters in Hong Kong. That happened because, one, the extent of the commercial engagement of both these platforms in China is fairly limited. Two, there is an element of geopolitics in this which we can’t ignore. The fact is that both of these are American platforms. The orchestrated disclosure, I believe, could have had the blessings of the American government. That is the extent to which these platforms are prepared to take cognisance of fake news. In other economies, it’s quite selective.

While WhatsApp has been trying to resist this idea of message traceability, it is also trying to maintain the integrity of the platform. Many regulators in India believe that technological fixes are solutions even if they weaken end-to-end encryption. I’m not sure that is the right way to go.

Raman, while technology per se is not the problem, virality of texts makes fake news spread very fast. Would you agree with some of the solutions that have been propounded — for example, Professor V. Kamakoti’s idea of tracing origin of WhatsApp messages?

Raman Chima: Firstly, on virality, communication virality has been there right from the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. Mass circulation has always resulted in tension between people in power with others.

When it comes to messaging services, when they were implemented in India and in other emerging economies, they were not just used for the purpose of messaging. They were, for many people, information discovery platforms. They do not often relate or refer to the World Wide Web. The kind of information consumed in messages are images and videos that may not be actually hosted on the web. The problem, therefore, is that messaging platforms haven’t been able to do a good job in ensuring that people have access to good, accurate information. For example, if you sign up to a messaging service, say WhatsApp, are you informed in your local language about how you could report in your own language disinformation content and messages that are malicious or abusive? Sadly, the reality is that there is not even a splash screen in the local language to know what you can or cannot say, during the process of signing up.

Also, fact-checking websites, fake news busters and government sources don’t get the support they need to distribute their content to local users in interior areas. Therefore, the messaging services companies could do more in fighting disinformation. I agree with Arun that they cannot be held liable and that they shouldn’t implement technological solutions as a panacea. You mentioned suggestions by Professor Kamakoti of IIT Madras to the Madras High Court. First of all, there is the argument that the Madras High Court should not be going into an area which is a legislative issue. Even if that is set aside, his proposals have been critiqued by other computer scientists. Professor Manoj Prabhakaran of IIT Bombay, for example, has argued against such models of imparting traceability.

Both of you seem to agree that the solution doesn’t lie in technology, and neither is there any need to add any extra layer of liability for social media platforms and websites. So, the Shreya Singhal judgment in 2015 was along these lines, right? Some provisions on intermediary liability on publishing were actually read down. But last year, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology notified new draft rules for intermediaries and called for public comments. What levels of liability would you set for social media platforms?

AMS: There has been a raft of litigious activity and, concurrently, fairly explosive growth in regulatory guidelines as well. These guidelines from the government have been trying to enhance the agency of the government over technology companies. For instance, there is a debate among government industries today about data localisation, something that will affect the working of most of these big technology companies. The fundamental tension at work is that most of the technology companies, which are into the bread-and-butter business of communication, are based abroad. The consumer base is clear with a WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter. WhatsApp has effectively made encrypted communication a mass market phenomenon here, which is great for correspondence generally. But on the other hand, the government has very little agency to make these companies do what they want to in terms of adhering to certain intermediary guidelines. Of course, the reason why these guidelines were lampooned was because the government imposed a high degree of liability, and takedown requirements in many cases were selectively followed. The fact is that if you were to take a step back and look, the government has very limited agency over these companies at the moment. On the one hand, there is a great deal of adoption by a wide user base, which is only increasing as Internet connectivity grows in India. And WhatsApp did not even have an office in India till very lately!

And the same thing goes for Internet shutdowns. Now, nobody would say that Internet shutdowns are a desirable phenomenon. But if you speak to local law enforcement agencies and district magistrates, they tell you that they have very limited avenues by which they can prevent the proliferation of malicious content on the Internet through social media platforms at a time of crisis, whether that crisis is a natural calamity or whether it is man made. So, they have resorted to these in a ham-handed fashion. Of course, you can’t justify these measures. But the fact is that at the local level or at the federal level, there seems to be very little agency that government officials have to do what they should do.

RC: On intermediary liability, it has already been identified by our judiciary that the issue of making platforms liable for the content posted by users impacts free speech. And the basic premise there is, you can put pressure on tech platforms to over censor or even perhaps harm the privacy of users by making them liable for all the content they have posted on platforms.

When Parliament legislated provisions, there were some ambiguities over what the executive branch could regulate via rules. Rules were criticised when they were released in 2012 and, ultimately, as you mentioned, they were read down in the Shreya Singhal judgment. The court basically said that if you are asking for content takedowns, that can be done only via a court order or through a legal process. The government’s proposed amendments to the rules, for example, that web platforms should deploy self-censoring/auto-filtering of content by users could definitely fly against the face of the court’s judgment.

More importantly, on some issues such as identifying the origin of messages through breaking encryption, the government seems to be using rule-making as a way to fix and patch these. Whereas it would be better off to have substantial legislative policy discussions held in a public manner over such knotty issues. Also, as Arun says, there is a lack of agency for the government to receive information from the platforms as there is no clear privacy law in place.

Government agencies lack sufficient agency and often use a ham-handed approach to enforce takedowns or shutdowns. In some cases, a total communication shutdown, as we see in Kashmir today, invoking ‘national interest’. What kind of mechanisms would you suggest instead of this approach?

AMS: We did this capacity-building workshop a couple of years ago, with law enforcement agencies from across States. Some States clearly did better, because they had, for lack of a better reason, good cops. They were interested in pursuing this sort of “finesse” measures and not merely rely on takedowns. Telangana, for instance, has a cadre of officers who dedicate themselves to preventing the propagation of fake news through channels like WhatsApp. Some of these steps require serious investment and I am not sure if all States have the capacity.

So perhaps the Prime Minister’s/the Centre’s sending a message down to folks at the district level may well produce some results. But the fact is that they resort to these ham-handed measures because they do not have any other tools.

But I also agree that India is one of the countries which often tops the number of takedown requests, but it’s not the only country or the only government that is interested in data from users. Facebook’s reports that indicate the number of requests that the government has made for a takedown show that India’s [requests for a takedown] are up there with the U.S. government or any other Western European government.

It is time for property rights to be moved away from competing private owners to governments

Australia holds the world record among developed countries for the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth. But there are signs of this remarkable streak being in serious trouble, owing to the chaotic nature of the country’s economic system, where most productive assets are privately owned and the major decisions regarding how to use them are made by the market. In this paradigm, the livelihoods of current and future generations of Australians are being left to chance.

No jobs plan

First, consider job creation. Australia has no overarching jobs plan. Granted, private profit-driven employers in competition with each other are currently keeping most of the workforce employed. But the terms of these arrangements, including the existence of the jobs themselves, are ultimately determined privately and subject to change at any moment. One of the most important of such terms concerns pay rates. The key issue here is that many Australian wage-earners have not had a pay rise commensurate with the rising cost of living for the last six years.

This makes sense for individual businesses, because fixing labour costs helps to boost their profits. If most businesses do this, however, they end up unintentionally harming themselves as a group, since poorer workers no longer have enough spending power to buy as many goods and services (or service debts), and so sales and profits decline. Unnecessary workers are eventually laid off. If workers undertake training or education suitable for an industry that becomes unprofitable for whatever reason, then that is just how the chips fall in Australia’s economic system. A labour market paradigm with fewer upheavals and less frictional unemployment would require long-term planning and might require certain industries to make concessions at the negotiating table. Alternatively, a robust government job guarantee system could play the role of a safety net.

Second, consider Australia’s energy shortfalls. Even though Australia has some of the world’s most abundant reserves of natural gas, in early 2017, tens of thousands of Australians went without power during a heatwave. In large measure this was because private businesses correctly calculated that exporting gas overseas was more profitable than meeting the needs of the domestic market. Australia’s energy problems are often blamed on the failure of governments to set a stable investment framework. But the core issue is that the market is functioning normally. What is more, the uncoordinated decisions of businesses in Australia’s energy market are soon expected to bring about a surplus of electricity, which means lower prices and investor returns.

Will private owners continue supplying enough electricity to meet Australia’s energy needs in exchange for lower rates of return? According to the rules of the country’s economic system, it is entirely up to them. There is likewise no plan to replace Australia’s ageing power stations in an orderly fashion. Older power stations will continue malfunctioning and closing indiscriminately, causing electricity prices to move as erratically upwards as they can downwards, without any regard for the impact this has on people. A much less irrational arrangement used to be in place in Australia until around 1990: government ownership and control of electricity grids.

Changing the agenda

Meanwhile, scientists tell us we have 15 years to transition away from fossil fuel energy sources. The huge mobilisation of resources and economic restructuring required to meet environmental constraints is fundamentally at odds with the chaotic nature of market competition. An integrated public energy and jobs plan could explicitly take these constraints into account. The prospect of shifting property rights away from competing private owners to governments as a practical way of coherently addressing some of the Australian economy’s pressing problems should now be put on the policy agenda.

Chad Satterlee is an Australia-based political economist

And the tricky relationship between reporters and sources

Last week, following former Union Minister Arun Jaitley’s death, newspapers were filled with vignettes about him. Many journalists who were close to him shared their grief on social media, while others pointed out Jaitley’s shortcomings and critically analysed his tenure as Finance Minister. Heated debates broke out on the delicate art of writing an obituary. Fingers were pointed at reporters and editors who were considered to be part of Jaitley’s inner coterie for not being “objective” in their reactions.

The question of how close you keep a source, especially a senior minister, an opposition leader, a bureaucrat, or a police officer, is tricky. It’s fatal for a reporter to not have access to those in power. After all, we need their views, whether their comments are on or off the record. We need their perspective to understand events, remarks and policies.

The debate last week led me to the age-old dilemma on the relationship between a source and a reporter: How close is too close? The distance between a source and a reporter should be such that the source doesn’t hold sway over the reporter, while the reporter still gets information. Information is, after all, our lifeline.

For a reporter to call a source every morning is not an unusual practice. But what she does after the phone call — that is, how she processes and reports the information she has received — is what matters.

Sources expect a lot from reporters. A reporter is sometimes expected to brush under the carpet any scoop that could hurt their source and/ or their interests. Often a reporter is simply expected to write in a way that could help further the source’s agenda. Sometimes, reporters are expected to cover up the source’s mistakes and gaffes. A senior minister once told me, “You write in your own words, just make sure you embellish it well”. I refused to respond to the comment and walked out of his office.

Each of us reporters can recount endless instances of getting cornered in corridors by politicians complaining about their quotes being omitted in reports or not finding their names in the newspaper. We receive sarcastic text messages like, “Oh, I suppose your paper could not find space.” Recently, after a factual report on parliamentary proceedings was published, I was yelled at by a politician from down south. He went on to allege that I am reporting on behalf of his political rivals.

In return for this “disservice”, reporters are often threatened that information, our currency, will be denied to us. “Next time you call me asking for details, I will not pick up your call,” we are curtly told. So, reporters have to constantly walk a tightrope.

This brings me to the task of writing obituaries. In a 2013 piece on the dos and dont’s of writing an obituary, Nick Serpell, then Obituary Editor of BBC News, wrote that an obituary “should be true, balanced and fair in the context of that person’s life. It should neither be a eulogy or a character assassination”.

The question is this: How do you stay detached after a source’s death when you have known them all your life, seen them through their highs and lows, and perhaps shared your own ups and down with them? You have to err on the side of caution, I have been told. Separate your personal grief and professional duty.

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