A recent Washington Post article detailing a whistle-blower complaint on Twitter’s lack of protection for user data and a number of breaches, alleges that the Indian government forced Twitter to put one of its agents on the company’s payroll, with access to user data at a time of large-scale protests across the country.
In our latest Himal Twitter Spaces session, recorded on 22 September, co-founder and executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, Apar Gupta speaks to digital rights advocate, Hija Kamran and senior researcher, Harsha Man Maharjan to understand the interaction between social media platforms and governments in Southasia and how increasing social media use has impacted society.
Apar Gupta – Lawyer, Co-founder and Executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF). Based in India.
Hija Kamran – Digital rights advocate based in Pakistan. Kamran has worked on key internet governance and privacy issues in the country.
Harsha Man Maharjan – Senior researcher at Martin Chautari. Maharjan writes for various publications on media practices, media policy and media history. Based in Nepal.
The full discussion is now available on Soundcloud, Spotify and Apple Podcasts. This is an edited selection of excerpts from the Twitter Spaces recording. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Apar Gupta: Social media is integral to a lot of the work which is done in civil society, but also presents challenges and causes a lot of the threats which emerge. From my own perspective in India, over the past 8 years, the amount of teleconnectivity has gone from about 80 million internet users to close to about 800 million now. This is also reflected in the use of social media platforms, where India has very high numbers of people who use, for instance, YouTube as a search engine. At the same time, there is also disinformation, online abuse and threats. So how has increasing social media use impacted society in your country – both positively and negatively? What role is it playing right now for activists, both as an enabler and also as a threat?
Hija Kamran: In Pakistan, social media definitely plays a very significant role, both negatively and positively. I am against demonising social media for the negative aspects that we see. Of course, we understand and acknowledge that whatever we see is a mere reflection of how societies are. But there are repercussions of using this tool to advance any violence that we see around us.
We do see that a lot of grassroots movements and other kinds of political movements and political discourse start from social media or gain popularity from social media. A very good example is the Aurat March. The movement started through social media when a group of women came together and started to talk about turning it into a movement. But then all the backlash that we see against this movement has also been originating or resulting in online violence against the organisers and movement builders. Similarly, with political movements, and disinformation campaigns, I can point out hundreds of cases where we have seen how social media has played a role in advancing violence against oppressed communities. We see that social media does have a lot of negative aspects – violence against women, transgender community, women journalists and activists, and even the journalist community as a whole.
Harsha Man Maharjan: We know that technology is sometimes blamed for wrongdoings and people try to present media as a scapegoat. But when you think of the positive aspects, social media has given opportunities to people who don’t have access to traditional media. Due to this, they can connect and even express their views and concerns about social issues. As we have seen in other countries, even in Nepal, there are movements, like MeToo, which started from social media, because social media helps us to organise easily. Even activists and general people can raise their voices about public issues.
The issue of hate speech has become problematic in Nepal as well. Social media, in a way, has given platforms for some people to criticise. While this is essential for democracy, when it becomes extreme, it becomes a tool to spread hate speech and direct hateful comments toward women, journalists, Dalits, and minority communities.
Another case is misinformation, which is not good for society in terms of fake news, which has increased after the COVID-19 pandemic and even before that. Misinformation has become widespread because everybody can put content on social media. When you think about traditional media, there’s often an editorial process that content passes through to the general public.
Apar Gupta: Pakistan has attempted to regulate social media, from the perspective of actual social harms which happen, but somewhat from my own experience in India, ends up without addressing those harms, and sometimes just consolidating greater power for the government. That is done more through a ministerial function, which directly places a government executive authority in direct conversation and has power over a social media platform, as opposed to a regulatory entity. What’s been the experience in Pakistan? Specifically, around the Electronic Crimes Law, which was introduced to address the leaking of intimate photos and videos and online harassment. Has this been effective in curbing such practices and have social media companies themselves been accused of abetting the violation of the law?
Hija Kamran: When the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act or the Cyber Crime law was passed in 2016, we as civil society, have been constantly telling the government that the law is being drafted to abuse freedom of expression, it is not going to protect the people that you are claiming it will protect. When it was implemented, it was passed to protect “the daughters of the nation”, but the daughters of the nation are still not safe from the harms that the law promises to protect them from. For example, section 20 of the law criminalises defamation, but this particular law has been used to silence women who have been speaking up against their experiences of violence on the internet.
Section 21 of the law criminalises non-consensual use of intimate images, which we commonly call revenge porn, for example. There are applications over applications that are being sent to the Federal Investigation Agency, which is the implementation authority under the cybercrime law. All of these applications refer to the non-consensual use of intimate images, images that have been morphed or photoshopped to portray them as something they were not originally. When people go to the investigative authority, rather than giving them the recourse that they are looking for or the help that they are looking for – people in these offices start harassing people.
We see that the law was passed, but the implementation is not effective. But ineffective implementation is only the case when it’s a matter of gender-based violence. In contrast, in cases against journalists, cases that criminalise freedom of expression or cases against dissent, this law has been terrific in implementation. There’s no problem at all when we see how the law is being used to silence dissent. These kinds of draconian laws are passed to intimidate citizens and to control them from disagreeing with the status quo.
Apar Gupta: In India, you have the Information Technology Act and you have immunity given to platforms for user-generated content. But, of course, there have been some erosions of certain rules that have been made. What is the relationship between social media companies and the government in Nepal and Pakistan? Is there similar immunity for user-generated content for social media companies?
Harsha Man Maharjan: We have very few laws that govern freedom of expression online. One is the Electronic Transactions Act 2006, which was the only law directly related to the internet for a long time. It is interesting that while it is related to electronic transactions or e-transactions, section 47 of the law is directly related to freedom of expression. It restricts the publication of illegal materials in electronic form – it does not allow different kinds of expression under three categories of public morality or decent behaviour, materials which may spread hate or jealousy towards any individual, or jeopardise the harmonious relations among communities. The content in this section is very vague and can be misused. Artists have been arrested, people have been arrested for writing about political leaders, and there’s even one case of a person who was arrested for writing a comment on a Facebook post. Many lawyers and journalists have since requested the government to amend this law.
The Information Technology (IT) Bill which was introduced in 2019, contains harsh provisions and was in a way proposed to replace the Electronic Transactions Act 2006. Civil society organisations, journalists and others criticised and challenged this bill. In this IT bill, there were provisions for the registration of social media companies within three months, and this also could allow the government to cancel the registration of social media organisations.
Hija Kamran: This is something that has always bothered society – how social media companies, specifically Facebook, are very smart in their diplomatic relations with the Pakistani government. It has always tried to stay in the good books of the Pakistani government, and the government has always tried to maintain that relationship with Facebook (Meta).
Having said that, Twitter has not been very responsive in that sense. Even when we see the transparency reports that these platforms put out, Twitter has consistently not been complying with the government requests for data, content takedowns, or any requests like that. This is something that bothers the Pakistani government as well because political conversation often happens on Twitter. Political leaders and the government put out their statements and comments, and even engage with each other, their supporters, or the opposition. It is the platform that angers them the most on a daily basis, so they’ve been trying to regulate it to a certain extent. That is also why they were trying to pass the social media rules under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, which is the cybercrime law, to try to regulate social media in Pakistan, so that they have to comply with the government’s requests. Under this set of rules, what they were demanding was that, whenever there’s a request for content data or information, these companies will have to comply if they want to continue to work in Pakistan.
In response, the Asia Internet Coalition had said that if these rules are passed and implemented, they are not going to work in Pakistan. So, we do see that there is retaliation or denial to engage and comply with these sorts of laws, but we also see that companies like Facebook and TikTok have constantly been engaging with the government on different levels and complying with a lot of requests as well.
Apar Gupta: Considering the tremendous social benefit that social media does offer, and I see it in my own work, for instance, IFF’s Instagram and Twitter help us get our message across and fundraise, but at the same time I question myself – am I contributing to a larger ecology, which is also harmful, for instance, online abuse or disinformation? I think there can be better social media, but one of the things which may need to change for that could be periodic, human rights impact assessments, which are much more country-specific. Have there been any such demands by activists or even attempts by companies proactively to do a country-level, specific study of the platform, human rights impact assessment based on ICCPR standards, etc, looking at local issues from a lens of actual experience?
Hija Kamran: There have been requests and calls from civil society for human rights impact assessment. We, in our work, acknowledge that for these companies, the global South, (barring India, because of the number of users and market) most of Southasia has been kept as an afterthought. This is something that we struggle with in Pakistan. Every time there is a conversation on this, we have to struggle to include Pakistan because the human rights violations of these corporations are very vast in the country. Honestly, there hasn’t been anything done by the corporations to do a human rights impact assessment report. Civil society has submitted reports to UNSR over the years and these are compiled by Digital Rights Foundation, Media Matters for Democracy, and also Bolo Bhi is another organisation that used to be around until a couple of years ago. There are very few organisations and individuals who have been adamant about having these corporations and third-party organisations do human rights impact assessments in Pakistan. Currently, there hasn’t been any work done, apart from what civil society has put forward.
Apar Gupta: There is considerable utility with social media platforms, but at the same time, they do impact society in very deep ways. What is the civil society response in Nepal? How is that research being conducted? For instance, if there are elections in Nepal and issues around disinformation spread through instant messaging? And do you see Nepal’s civil society developing around these issues or do you think it will take much more time and resources?
Harsha Man Maharjan: There are a few studies about this issue of misinformation during elections. In the case of Facebook, people sometimes complain about misinformation. There’s also the issue of people not being aware of complaint mechanisms as there is a gap in media literacy for social media in Nepal. I believe that many people in Nepal do not care about privacy or data going to Facebook or other companies. Facebook has taken action against cases in Brazil and India, but I haven’t come across any such cases for Nepal.
Gradually, there are some organisations thinking about privacy issues, but they are more focused on the government. So, we have to think about global IT companies and social media companies, and their power related to the encroachment of privacy in Nepal. As I mentioned earlier, privacy has become a myth, and privacy is related to business models, so I think there should be more studies about social media companies and how they are functioning in Nepal.