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OP-ED: Move fast and break things (including democracy)

  • Published at 05:44 am May 28th, 2021
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Censorship is built into the DNA of nation-states. So what can we do?

On May 26, the political activist Ruben Mascarenhas (he is the national joint secretary of Aam Admi Party) posted bemusedly on Twitter: “I still can’t get over the fact that a foreign corporation is suing the government of India, to protect the fundamental rights of Indian Citizens. #WhatsappPrivacy.” 

The wonderment is justified. All this past week, India has experienced continual back-and-forth in an increasingly high-stakes struggle over the fundamental human rights the United Nations defines as “freedom of opinion and expression.” It’s part of the worldwide trend of authoritarian-leaning governments seeking to curb the power and influence of pervasively ubiquitous social media like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

The latest move -- which Mascarenhas was referring to -- came when WhatsApp (the wildly popular messaging service with over 400 million Indian users is itself owned by Facebook) filed suit against the Indian government, saying that new strictures “would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermine [the user’s] right to privacy.”

Two days earlier, late on May 24 evening, it was the Indian government that acted, when it sent the New Delhi police’s anti-terrorism special cell to Twitter offices (one had already been shut for a month due to the Covid-19 pandemic). That intimidating show of state-might directly followed the Internet giant’s refusal to remove its “manipulated media” label on posts containing false allegations that had been made by members of the ruling party.

Even before that, on May 4, the splenetic actress Kangana Ranaut -- an avid supporter of prime minister Narendra Modi’s BJP -- was “permanently suspended for repeated violation of Twitter rules” after she unsubtly advocated for state-sponsored mass murder in West Bengal, after the state’s electoral rejection of the ruling party. 

These are not isolated instances. They tie into the much bigger tripartite global battle over social media, in which the rights and interests of governments, multi-national corporations, and “netizens” are at stake. 

At this juncture, despite appearances, it’s clear the first two are winning handily, and the only loser is you and me.

It can be no surprise to anyone -- least of all in South Asia -- that governments want to control the free flow of information and ideas. Censorship is built into the DNA of our nation-states. 

As the audacious Edward Snowden revealed at length in 2013, even in the US, right alongside its fetishization of the world’s most eccentric fundamentalism on freedom of expression, the state conducts extraordinary surveillance of all communications networks, while routinely engaging in cyberwarfare on the same systems.

The conundrum for us is that multi-national corporations are even more untrustworthy in maintaining and defending our fundamental rights. 

In his insightful 2019 interview with Kara Swisher -- “Silicon Valley’s most powerful journalist” -- Snowden warned of “a class led by Mark Zuckerberg [the Facebook CEO] that is moving toward the maximization of technological power and influence that can be applied to society.” He said: “I think it’s actually a mistake to see them as different threats [from governments].”

What is more, with especially deadly consequences in South Asia, we already know that tech companies like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter are fundamentally interested in only their own rights and freedoms. 

This is why social media is over-run with hate, propaganda, and misinformation. It’s how “WhatsApp University” continues to greatly hamper public health efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

It was well known that, right until 2014, the internal motto of Facebook was “Move Fast and Break Things” but who knew the most significant destruction would be to our democratic systems and societies?

Idealists like Mascarenhas aren’t wrong. It’s perfectly true that this week, in this specific instance, Twitter has taken a stand that coincides with his and our interests. But such alignment is at best temporary and situational. For the most part, on all similar platforms, only arbitrary and opaque interventionism reigns, with good sense stranded in an ocean of lies, slander, misinformation, hate speech, and incitement.

“People actually care,” said Edward Snowden to Swisher, “they care very much. But they feel powerless to change it. So, they adopt a position of laissez-faire, or ‘I don’t care’ as a psychological coping mechanism, because otherwise you are being victimized, and that’s a difficult thing to deal with.”

There are no easy solutions. Here in India, for example, WhatsApp has become the main -- and by far most reliable -- means of communication for hundreds of millions of people, and the main work medium for many. Livelihoods are at stake. No one can just unplug.

So, is there anything we can do? 

For starters, Snowden says we must switch from Google Android phones because “they bake tracking software into them.” Instead of heavily compromised brand name services, he recommends Signal and Wire, which use reliable end-to-end encryption for messaging, and the Tor Project, “the most important anti-censorship network on the internet today.”

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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