Is there such a thing as Digital Freedom?
In the second debate of Day 1 of The Media Rumble 2019, four imminent speakers explored the theme of ‘Digital Freedoms’, and sought to unpack the legal, practical and technological challenges in regulating speech online without inhibiting liberty. What is ‘freedom’ in the online space? What are the limits to those freedoms, if any? And whose job is it to monitor, regulate and censor incendiary voices in the online space? These were some of the key issues discussed in this engrossing session.
Dr. Subho Ray is the President of the Internet and Mobile Association of India, and has over two decades of experience in advocacy, public policy and regulatory affairs in the ICT sector in India. Amba Kak is Global Policy Advisor at Mozilla, the makers of the open-source browser Firefox. She was formerly an internet policy researcher with the Oxford Internet Institute and is also a Rhodes scholar. Nikhil Pahwa is the Founder and Editor of MediaNama, a leading publication chronicling the growth of India’s digital ecosystem, and co-founder of the Save The Internet campaign, which sought to wrest control of the internet out of the hands of governments. The moderator for the session, Dr. Samir Saran, is the President of the Observer Research Foundation, one of Asia’s most influential think tanks.
While the internet was originally seen as a safe platform to share opinions, explore diverse interests and interact with people freely, it has transformed into a space where the loudest and richest voices win. Amba Kak felt that ‘platforms are not doing enough’ to combat the internet-fuelled hatred which is engulfing the globe. She stated that the ‘main problem’ with platforms, like Google and Facebook, were ‘the business models’ they were built upon, which allowed those with more money or the most sensationalist opinions to gain the most reach. ‘Virality defined content play’ added Kak. Dr. Subho Ray felt that while platforms could be asked to regulate their own spaces, governments had ‘sufficient provisions’ to regulate platforms.
Nikhil Pahwa felt that governments were now becoming ‘platforms themselves, collecting data and blatantly ignoring privacy protection recommendations from the Supreme Court’. ‘The internet can now be weapon-ised,’ added Samir Saran, explaining how large corporations deliberately influence users’ political and commercial choices: a powerful tool for those with a sinister agenda. While memories of Cambridge Analytica are fresh in the collective memory, Truecaller and Aadhar are closer home, and represent a worrying trend of corporations and governments using citizens’ personal data as a resource to be sold, often without the explicit consent of those very users.
The panel discussion created more questions than it answered but allowed those who attended to return with a better appreciation of the challenges that remained in understanding freedom of thought, expression and choice in today’s internet-driven society.