New Delhi: Micro-blogging site Twitter’s decision to permanently de-platform the sitting US President Donald Trump without any legal recourse and without giving him any opportunity to explain his side shows the enormous power these unregulated social media giants hold over public discourse which is a threat to democracy and free speech, says Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Chandrasekhar.
In an exclusive interaction with ETV Bharat, Rajeev Chandrasekhar said India needs an updated information technology law, independent regulatory institutions, and homegrown social media platforms to face the serious challenge posed by the domination of the internet by six big US tech giants.
“This particular incident of de-platforming a sitting US President is a critical inflection point in how we all look at the issue of regulating the big tech,” said Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha.
“People like me have been arguing for years that the powers that these platforms have, and the fact that no one regulates them, this power which is concentrated in the hands of few billionaires, it can be misused to further people's ideologies and agenda,” Chandrasekhar told ETV Bharat.
Chandrasekhar, a member of Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules the Central government, says it is high time for everyone to wake up about the threat posed by big tech companies.
“Whether Donald Trump needed to be de-platformed, he deserved it or not, is a separate question,” the Rajya Sabha member observed.
“The fact that a platform could do that without giving an opportunity, without any legal basis, without any legal direction by any regulatory institution, tells the powers that these platforms have that they can de-platform the most powerful man, the American President,” he added.
Expressing his apprehensions about the potential misuse of unfettered power of big tech companies, Chandrasekhar says it should be a cause of concern for a democracy like India because it can be subverted by these tech companies.
The legislator, who had moved an Algorithmic Accountability Bill in the Rajya Sabha in July 2019 to address the issue of bias in the way they operate, accuses these big tech platforms and social media giants such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, Amazon and others for shaping the narrative on their platforms for years.
“Even before Donald Trump, they had the power to mute, suppress, block and de-platform. And thousands of people have been de-platformed without any recourse to legality, purely on the basis that these platforms will say that you violated our guidelines,” he told ETV Bharat while sharing the details of his quest to make these social media giants accountable to Indian laws.
The entrepreneur turned legislator says the conduct of these big American companies violate the freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19(1) of the Constitution, which can only be restricted under specific circumstances listed in the Constitution.
“But Twitter and many other platforms have gone ahead and muted, shadow-banned social handles without any consequences,” he noted.
He, however, says that by permanently suspending the social media handle of a sitting US President, Twitter has overreached as people were shocked to see the kind of powers these platforms wielded over the public discourse in that country.
“These platforms have been doing this. It has been known for years and they are not accountable for how they do this,” said the lawmaker who has accused them of algorithmic bias that filters out certain content not liked by the top executives of a company according to their ideology.
In response to a question about what President-elect Joe Biden should do as the Democrat leader himself accused social media giants of promoting false propaganda and demanded immediate revocation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that gives immunity to these platforms, Chandrasekhar says it should concern all government not just the Democrat leader.
India should take the lead
The lawmaker, who has been working to fix the accountability of these social media giants for the last 8-10 years, says rather than looking at any other country India should take the lead in regulating these platforms.
"Like the section 230 of the US law which provides safe harbour to big tech platforms, India has section 79 in our information technology act which does exactly the same thing, gives them immunity for the content they carry," he said while underscoring the need to urgently update India’s Information Technology (Amendment) Act of 2008.
“These platforms carry enormous power. Ten years ago, they could have been considered a technology company or an innovation company. They could have been given immunity from the accountabilities that other publishers have,” said the lawmaker.
“We also need a data protection law, an entire system of accountability using these laws will have to be put in place.”
Big tech cannot have it both ways
Rajeev Chandrasekhar says Section 79 of the IT Act of 2008, must be replaced with a pragmatic regulatory framework where these platforms are accountable for their actions and big tech companies will have to follow Indian Constitution and laws like any other citizen.
The legislator says these companies cannot have it both ways, if they claim immunity against the fake news, hate speech shared on their platform by claiming to be just a platform and not a publisher then they cannot de-platform users as they have done with Donald Trump and scores of others in the past.
“If they are the platform then they cannot have the power to de-platform. They have to choose this. And if they have the power to de-platform then they have to be consistent with the Indian law, and in the US with the US law, and they have to be accountable for the content and material that has been published on their platforms,” noted the lawmaker.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar says these two principles are currently missing from the debate.
“We need to bring them back. It's not because of President Trump, it is because of every Indian citizen," he told ETV Bharat.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar says there is growing concern and awareness that the IT Act, which governs the framework and was passed by Parliament 12 years ago, must be immediately transformed to meet the present challenges.
“The Internet has transformed dramatically in the last decade. The law needs to be contemporized, it should be ahead of the curve of these big tech companies,” he observed. “Otherwise these big tech companies are becoming completely unregulated.”
Tech giants can’t dictate Internet behaviour
Rajeev Chandrasekhar says India has 800 million Indians connected to the internet and soon the number will reach 1 billion internet users in the country.
“These 6-7 tech giants cannot decide which Indian will be on the internet or not. That power is dangerous,” he noted.
“Secondly, the power to create a narrative, to mute a narrative, to amplify one side of the narrative can mislead, it can influence the democratic process in the country. The power of these platforms has to be reined in, and use laws to rein them in.”
Court restrained Trump on social media
In July 2019, a US Federal Appeals Court had ruled that President Trump was violating the Constitution by blocking people from following his Twitter account because they criticized or mocked him.
The three-judge bench of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York ruled that US President Trump was using Twitter for transacting the government business so he cannot exclude some US citizens from reading his posts and engaging in conversations with him.
In response to a question by ETV Bharat about the restrictions that the US President Donald Trump was already subjected to while using Twitter, Chandrasekhar says that the micro-blogging site must have similarly used a court order in that country to silence the US leader.
“The platform can silence or de-platform a user only on the production of a court order or in India's case in case of a brazen violation of Article 19(2) such as inciting hate, committing crime online etc.,” he said.
“But de-platforming without a legal recourse, without any notice and in an arbitrary fashion is a total misuse of the power that these platforms have concentrated among themselves over the last decade,” noted the lawmaker.
He says it is in the interest of everybody to review and reduce the powers of these social media giants.
Civil Society must debate the issue
He says that civil society needs to debate the issue in light of what happened in the US recently.
"We all are stakeholders in our democracy and if there is an iota of threat to our democracy due to the growing power of these big tech companies then as citizens we have to respond," he told ETV Bharat.
“I think public policy and the government will react but awareness among the citizens is important,” he added.
While talking about the hurdles he faced in popularizing the concept of privacy in the country over the last decade or so, the lawmaker says when he first raised the issue of privacy about Aadhaar in 2010 then many people thought the issue of privacy was an elitist concept.
Talking about the privacy concerns, among other things, the Rajya Sabha member says the apex court of the country has already held that 'privacy' is a fundamental right and it is an integral part of the right to life under the Constitution.
“Right to privacy and right to free speech are fundamental rights, and big tech cannot violate them because they have some so called guidelines,” said the Rajya Sabha member from Karnataka.
“This is not something that can be bartered away with some tech giants as they are giving us access to their platform.”
“As a nation, we have to become aware that these big tech firms represent a threat. They are not some just fancy social media platforms for passing time. It is more than that,” he added.
Big tech carving up internet space
The ruling party lawmaker echoes the growing concern among many people that six big US tech giants are carving out the internet space among themselves.
These six US corporations are Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent company), Facebook which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram among others, Amazon, Apple, Twitter and Microsoft.
“They are carving up the internet into private islands and to each of these islands, you are paying a toll to get in. The toll is by way of giving your data and your information, you're paying all kinds of tolls that you don't know,” opined the lawmaker.
"Third issue is identifying and preventing the internet being grabbed by these six companies, making sure that there are multiple other companies," he said.
“Our own Indian eco-system should fund and further develop these platforms.”
WhatsApp cannot cross-share data
“This cross-platform data sharing is completely unacceptable. The basic principle of privacy is that a platform should only use as much data as it needs to deliver a service and delete it after the service is used,” he noted.
“They can't take my data for a cab service, take credit card number, take my place of residence and the place where I want to go and then transfer that data to another platform which will use that information to pop-up information about restaurants in my area or something else,” observed the lawmaker.