Internet was a great invention. Social media running on the Internet was a great utilization of technology which gave the ordinary internet user, the power of being a journalist.
Unfortunately, the greed of mankind has taken over both the Internet and the Social Media today. Internet has become the hunting ground of Cyber Criminals which has made “Cyber Security” a critical requirement for any Internet user. Fortunately, the operating system Windows itself providing an in built anti malware protection has made things much better for internet users though criminals still work around it as well as other malware fighting software. This is not the subject of our discussion today.
The other menace that we need to discuss today is that of the misuse of the Social Medial both by criminals for phishing type of activities and also by politically motivated persons to gain political milege like in the traditional media. Over and above these two, we are today finding Cyber terrorists using Social media to spread their sinister messages with “Fake News”.
There is a case for “Real News” however bad it is to be made known to the society though it should be done with some responsibility. Some time even real news released at a wrong time creates more problems than it will solve. Journalists should therefore be responsible and filter the content to some extent and delay its release in some instances in order to see that the “Freedom of Expression” does not create an unintended backlash.
Unfortunately, the traditional media has today become aligned with different political forces to such an extent that no news can be believed implicitly. This applies to the so called “Respectable” news papers and TV channels. The debates and news that are run everyday in the media which includes once respected BBC are all motivated expressions of different sections of people who have some axe to grind. It is very difficult to find unbiased content expressed in a manner in which it can be digested as knowledge by the public.
The problem of “Fake News” on Social media such as WhatsApp has introduced a new dimension since the media is inherently meant to be for consumption amongst known people and is meant to be an instant distributor of views and news. It is self regulated and cannot be filtered without changing the nature of the expression itself.
This has given rise for demand of some bizarre adhoc regulations such as “Registering a WhatsApp Group” etc. WhatsApp itself is toying with the idea of tagging “Forwards” so that the recipient knows that the the forwarded message is not the message which the sender has verified.
Recently the mistake committed by a Court in Tamil Nadu in the S.V.Shekar case gave a wrong impression to the community that “Forwarding of a message is endorsing”. This is the same argument under which the Palghar girl was charged for “Liking” a face book post against Bal Thackeray. Though this was not a judgement itself, the impression seems to have stuck.
In this context, I would like to recall that way back on December 8, 2000, I had written the following in my blog in response to the presence of a “Rogue Website” called hindustan.org. I am reproducing the article here to reiterate that this kind of problem has been existing since a long time and is not just a creation of the social media itself. (Link here)
How to Counter Rogue Sites
Recently there has been reports of a spate of Rogue Web sites carrying “Anti Indian” messages, the latest being the one from the Tamil Nationalist group interlinked with the Islamic fundamentalists.
It is certainly alarming for the E-Governance of the Country that such sites should come up to disturb the peaceful fabric of the country or a part of it. However it would be interesting to see how the Government reacts to this challenge. This is not the first time that such a web site has come up in India or elsewhere and neither it will be the last time. The Government will have to therefore take a policy decision on how to handle such sites.
The Information Technology Act 2000 (ITA-2000) has empowered the Controller some powers in this regard.
Section 69 of the Act, states as follows:
69 (1): If the controller is satisfied that it is necessary and expedient so to do in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence, for reasons to be recorded in writing, by order, direct any agency of the Government to intercept any information transmitted through the computer resource.
(2) The subscriber or any person in charge of the Computer resource shall, when called upon by any agency which has been directed under subsection (1), extend all facilities and technical assistance to decrypt the information.
(3) The subscriber or any person who fails to assist the agency referred to in the sub section (2) shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years.
Read with section 75 which extends the provisions of the ITA-2000 to persons outside India, the Controller will be in a position to take appropriate action under the Act to punish the owners of the site, the ISP that hosts the site and the content providers. He can conduct an enquiry with or without the assistance of an Adjudicating officer, pronounce his verdict (Using the quasi judicial powers vested in him through the section 69) and request the enforcement authorities to take action invoking International Public law. Of course such action should be completed within a few days to be of any effect in the Cyber World.
However, blocking of a site may not be the correct solution since surfers may still access such sites through anonymizer services. Then the Government may have to block these services as well. More over, “Blocking ” is a negative way of regulation and only helps in distancing the Government from understanding the ground realities. It is a part of history now that Mrs Indira Gandhi suffered because of the Press Censorship during Emergency which gave her a wrong impression about the real situation in the Country. The Censorship by blocking those who access Internet with Indian ISP s will create a situation where the sites will continue to build up international viewpoint against the country with no counter point being served.
I therefore suggest for consideration the following model for handling “Objectionable Sites”.
1. Sites which are said to contain “Politically Objectionable material” are reviewed by a virtual committee of experts and voted for or against being declared “Objectionable for Viewing by the Indian Government”.
2. Based on such a verdict delivered through digitally signed e-mail confirmations from the virtual committee members, the Controller can issue a notice to ISP s in India to do the following.
3.Whenever a request for an objectionable site is received from a surfer, an “Objection Notice” to the following effect is displayed in a pop up box.
” The site requested by you contains information considered “Objectionable” by the Government of the Republic of India vide GO No xxx of xx.xx.xx. The reasons for objection can be found here. (Hyper linked Document) A List of sites presenting a counter view point can be found here (Hyper link to list of “Counter view point sites”)
4. You can click here to enter the site. (Hyperlink to “continue”)
The moment a site is declared “objectionable”, the Government should notify the same on the internet and invite the public to register their site or Pages containing counter view points. These can be reviewed and if found suitable, added to the list of “Counter View Point Sites”.
This strategy will enable the Government to use the public resources to produce content which will neutralise the objectionable material. If these sites do an equally good job, all the persons who are targeted to be influenced by the “Objectionable site” may actually be converted to the counter view point. Imagine some body like Mr Arun Shourie commenting on Kashmir problem. The owners of the “Objectionable sites” would think twice about inviting their audience to see his reasoned views on many of the contentious issues in the market.
Once a system is established for the purpose, the Indian Government can take up a request to other friendly Governments to bring an International treaty on mandating such services through the ISP s of their countries. India can take international lead in setting up a new treaty for ” International Cooperation in Cyber Space Governance”.
The central theme of the suggestion made here was to use the power of the internet itself against the attempt to misuse the system by spreading fake news.
Perhaps this strategy can be used in the WhatsApp situation also.
For example, any forward can be sent to the receiver through a “Forward Server” with a comment from the sender similar to “I donot endorse this”, “I endorse this”, “I am neutral to this opinion” and even place a “Counter view” etc. The recipient can be encouraged to make comments and record “Counter views”, all of which should be available in a link that should go with the forward.
This will enable building up of the counter opinion against a fake news and the senders can be rated on the two criteria of “Forwarding a Fake message” and “Endorsing them”. Recipients can be provided a power to block such senders. Over a period of time the credibility of such endorsements will automatically fall and the receivers themselves will block such senders. When more than 50% of a group block a sender, he can be automatically removed.
There could be many more innovative ways of checking the menace of fake news if the instant messaging platforms address it. if they fail to address this issue, regulators will start arresting admins, admins will start withdrawing and eventually the platform will itself be banned or wither way. Facebook and WhatsApp are today on the verge of tripping over if they donot take suitable steps to control fake news. It is better if they start thinking of proactively introducing some means of checking spreading of fake news so that they survive.