Chapter Nineteen: Smoking Facebook, Pegasus, No.1 Uttar Pradesh and Digital Divide.

If we told you that a social media giant is one of the biggest news stories in the world once again, you would probably be able to guess which company we're talking about. Mind you, we said news story, not 'tech news' story of the kind which remains confined to tech-only websites but a story which make the front page of newspapers across many countries.

You guessed it right, we're talking about Facebook. The Wall Street Journal has broken multiple stories telling us something we've heard before- Facebook is causing a lot of harm to its users, deliberately. In plain-speak the summary of these stories is as follows:

  1. Facebook owned Instagram causes severe harm to the mental health of teenage girls. Facebook has known this and hidden/withheld this information.

  2. All users are not equal for Facebook. It punishes some users for certain content while it lets some VIPs get away with the same content.

  3. Facebook knows that its algorithms make people angrier and hate more, it could fix this but it doesn't because then people would use Facebook less.

The world now has solid documented evidence that Facebook is causing mass hatred, violence, is engaging in non consensual mind control experiments, is causing mental health harm, is damaging democracies, promoting fake news and more. The question then should be, what are governments doing about it?

When we were reflecting on this, we wondered how governments would have reacted if instead of a 'social media' company, this was a pharmaceutical company. What would have happened? At least in western countries, Multi-Billion class action suits would have ensued, perhaps some regulator would have put a pause on the controversial products. Is that too dramatic? Let's step back. What if this was a food product? The company would have been compelled to clearly state all the ingredients that go into it on a label. Someone we were listening to offered the perfect analogy on the issue.

The Times of India podcast spoke to Randima Fernando, the co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology. You might remember the docudrama 'The Social Dilemma'. Fernando and the Center for Humane Technology assisted in the research and the structuring of the film. In his conversation with Times of India, Fernando compares social media companies with Tobacco.

This, we believe is a near-perfect analogy. In which case there is an urgent need for such companies to advertise the harm they can cause and have caused.

Surely after these many 'mistakes', apologies and documented evidence of harm, the least that ought to happen is that Facebook be compelled to show graphic images of the harm it has caused before its page loads for users- the same way the cigarettes are forced to display graphic images of patients suffering from Cancer? Maybe there need to be government funded campaigns warning people of the harms caused by social media companies which profit from algorithms which increase hatred and diminish democracy? This is the least that ought to be done we're saying.

People like American senator Elizabeth Warren have another solution:

Given that self-correction on Facebook's part can be safely ruled out, which of these measures do you think is likely to be imposed on Facebook? It is important to point out here, Facebook is used by people across the globe. While the maximum sound and fury against is happening in America, the harm that it causes is affecting people everywhere. However, most countries are unlikely to check these harms or hinder Facebook or other social media companies in any serious way. Why? The following story- one about Apple and Google in this case, illustrates the crux of the answer well:

Big Tech to put it mildly, is an instrument of mass propaganda and to put it strongly is an instrument of mass hypnosis- one which is able to manipulate people in a way that radio and television could not even when they were the only sources of information for the masses. It can help a certain piece of news go viral, no matter how true or false it is. Similarly, it can block out the news that it wants to. It can help a certain business get the eyeballs of millions and deprive another business of even organic engagement.

These platforms which have the kind of power which could not have been imagined ten years back are useful for politicians and governments. In countries where democracy, checks and balances are more robust, it is likely that Big-Tech will face greater resistance.

However, in autocratic regimes or in nations where democracy is fragile, Big Tech can and is able to evade scrutiny by granting disproportionate favour to the the politicians or political parties which are in power.

Does this mean that those who care for or fight for democracy and all it involves- free debate, truth, harmony and more should give up? Not at all. Going back to Randima Fernando's Tobacco analogy- remember that it took decades to hold tobacco companies to the standards mandated today. In these decades, these companies funded political campaigns, funded misleading 'scientific' studies, spent millions of dollars on advertisements and what not.

The Social Dilemma- the movie we mentioned previously, is available for free viewing in a variety of languages, we strongly recommend that you watch it:

At Vox.com, Rebecca Jennings has an insightful take on Facebook's problems, she says: "The only solution to make the internet better is to prevent companies like Facebook from getting quite so big in the first place."

You can read her piece here:


Pegasus

In the last chapter of TypeRight, we had discussed a hearing in the Supreme Court of India. The court had then given India's Attorney General "2-3" days in case he wanted to add something to what the central government had already said in court. The court also said that it will shortly be passing interim orders. There has been no development in the case ever since. No development in India, that is.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has demanded a global moratorium on all illegal surveillance tools like Pegasus.

Hannah Neumann, who is a member of the European Parliament has said it better than anyone else so far. In her plenary speech, she said:

"...Imagine your worst enemy is in your phone and you don’t even know it. That’s what #Pegasus is about: An industry gone rogue in an alliance with the world’s worst dictators, making Human Rights work impossible..."

The number of people affected by Pegasus continues to rise

As far as India is concerned, some solid journalism from journalist Sourav Das has revealed the following:

  1. That while the American and French governments have raised the Pegasus issue with the Israeli government, the Indian government has not.

  2. While the Indian government sent a "please comment" letter to Whatsapp with a link to an Indian Express report, nothing seems to have happened in the two years that have passed after that.

    There is much more in this detailed report:


Uttar Pradesh is No.1

The National Crime Records Bureau has released the latest data on the crime reported in India. You can read the entire report here. The Hindu also has a brief story summarising the information relating to cyber crimes.

"Among States, the maximum 11,097 cyber crime cases were reported in Uttar Pradesh followed by Karnataka (10,741), Maharashtra (5,496), Telangana (5,024) and Assam (3,530), it showed."


Digital Censorship

The Madras High Court has become the second court after the Bombay High Court which has stayed certain key provisions of the Information Technology rules recently passed by the Indian government. Put simply, the law, among other things, and in summary gives the Central government the powers of a super-censor which can block any news item, any content on the internet which has to do with current affairs, any content over 'Over The Top' (OTT) platforms such as Netflix, without needing to give the creator of the content any opportunity to defend their content.

The law also requires encrypted messaging apps such as Whatsapp to break their encryption and trace the originator of any message. Finally, they also mandate that news websites, OTT platforms, and social media websites such as Twitter operationalise a mechanism where they would be required to pass an order on any complaint that anyone has raised about any content. For instance if ten thousand supporters of a politician take umbrage at a news story about this politician, they can raise ten thousand complaints and the platform in question would be required to deal with every single one of them. Such rules/laws have not been passed by any democracy in the world.

The Madras High Court observed:

"Prima facie, there is substance to the petitioner’s grievance that the oversight mechanism to control the media by the Government may rob the media of its independence and the fourth pillar of democracy may not at all be there,”


Digital Divide

We have been consistently warning against the dangers of looking at 'Digital' as the answer to every problem, especially when the problem is delivery of critical public welfare services such as education.

It bears repetition that Digital Divide manifests in many ways, some of which are:

1) No access to infrastructure which includes devices-smartphones and computers and also to internet- no broadband/4g availability. On this, a development which has been described well in the following twitter thread by the Internet Freedom Foundation:

2) No access to the know how required to operate such devices in a manner necessary to access critical services.

3) Being affected by Internet Shutdowns

Last week, Amit Khare, secretary, Union ministry of education, on Friday, reportedly said: "The spread of technology usage during the pandemic had coincided with the introduction of the NEP and together, the two would aid the shift to a technology-based learning experience."

Our readers will benefit by going through innumerable reports available on the astonishing extent of Digital Divide in India. Outside of pockets of privilege, exclusion is the norm, quality access is the exception. We want to draw your attention to one of the recent stories on the phenomenon here:

What made us sit up was not only the instance of the child who says that while has seen a computer he has never touched one, but also the perspective of the teacher who said that not only are kids unable to learn new material, they are also forgetting what had already been taught. A shift to digital can only be a part of the response to this problem, the real solution is to vaccinate all children as soon as possible. These vaccinations should ideally be dispensed without requiring that the child intending to get vaccinated first register on a website or get an OTP.


Workers of the World

Apple's workers have decided that they won't stay silent anymore. A report in The New York Times tells us:

"....Over the past month, more than 500 people who said they were current and former Apple employees have submitted accounts of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination at work, among other issues, to an employee-activist group that calls itself #AppleToo, said Cher Scarlett and Janneke Parrish, two Apple employees who help lead the group."

Back in India, 'gig workers' have taken companies like Ola, Uber, Zomato etc. to the Supreme Court demanding that they be treated at par with employees under the law of the land and thus given consequent social security benefits.


The Adventures of Digital Empowerment Foundation

In previous chapters of Typeright, DEF has talked and appealed for raising funds for its CDERP 2.0 -- an ICT-enabled and community-specific relief programme, “COVID-19 DIGITAL EMERGENCY RELIEF PROGRAMME 2.0”. To recall, under CDERP 2.0 10000+ foot soldiers were aimed to be trained to work as COVID-19 Soochnapreneurs in their communities who were to implement certain activities to fulfill the outcomes such as distribution of necessities, dissemination of right information about COVID-19, among others. And, we are glad to announce that we helped more than 500,000 people by providing dry ration, hygiene kit, online doc consultation, COVID-19 prevention kits and more. Here is message from Osama Manzar (founder and director):

Read about Neetu from Ghasera village of Nuh, Haryana and how she now utilises smartphones and applications like Youtube to learn and apply skills like designing and stitching.

A forest, a laptop and a dongle.

Deepak Kumar Munda, 21 one of the many migrant workers who had to head back to his village Khakhra in Jharkhand from Bangalore as the 2020 COVID-19 imposed lockdown rendered him unemployed. Read his story of being engaged with DEF and becoming a community leader of his village.

Until next time friends. Stay safe, stay informed.

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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad, is a weekly conversational bulletin curated through the news and discussions on social media as well as what's happening on the ground. Through the eyes and ears of Digital Empowerment Foundation across rural India and global south, TypeRight aspires to focus on bringing the contextual relevance of digital technologies and developments on the society - both connected and unconnected.