Who gets to regulate the internet?

Anujit Saha | Published: 00:00, Dec 01,2019

Anujit Saha, internet regulation, road safety movement, ICT act, freedom of speech, bigoty, hate speech, far right ideologies, internet, tech companies, silicon valley, generation z, cyber security, artificial intelligence

Neither the state, nor the employees of the tech-giants can be trusted with the responsibility of filtering out hate speeches and bigotry messages on the internet at the current status quo. There are talks of artificial intelligence being used for an objective and a neutral analysis and regulation of the news in the internet. Today, how can we limit the human interaction and the bias in the process of deciding the news people see? Taking into account the trade-offs and the caveats of the current world, people can only hope for the giant tech companies to be transparent in their ambitions, writes Anujit Saha

INTERNET has well managed to absorb the previous giants of information sources — print news and televised shows — to become the most used and accessible source of public knowledge. Whether they are websites of well-known broadcasters or novel news portal, they both will co-exist in the same podium of the internet due to its accessibility to both the producer of news and the readers.

Other than news, millions of blogs, forums and other threads have helped the readers for the first time to engage in the conversations they wish to. It has helped niche communities to be represented and for the religious minorities to better communicate and protest the discrimination they face. And this has been termed as the wonder of our century that has allowed Americans to practice their first amendment to their full extent.

Hence the internet has to take the responsibility of being a holistic representative of certain beliefs and ensure that certain interests are not prioritised over the others based on their personal bias and their monetary links to certain interest groups. This issue can be best represented by the debate on net-neutrality where certain pages and news outlets get preferential treatment and recommendation from search engines. This leaves doubt on the readers and gives them reason to believe that the holistic and fair representation may not occur.

In the contemporary age, we no longer expect the news media norm of neutrality of public news. The Generation Z expects the media to be transparent about their political views and their subjective analysis on important issues. The people are accustomed to the belief that media and organisations are built on certain bias and principles which they need not sacrifice to maintain the norm of neutrality. This stems from the rapid proliferation of different news media outlet and the increasing accessibility of them to the people in the form of digital news media. This left readers with a diversity of sources to crosscheck and understand the plurality of issues.

The categories of ‘news section’ and ‘article section’ further facilitate the credibility of such media to express both objective and subjective views. But the same parallel cannot be drawn for the internet as proportionate carrier of both biased and neutral viewpoints. This is simple due to the fact that the connectivity of people that internet allows increasing exposure of its users to news shared by their friends.

In the scale of probability, it is highly likely that individuals get exposed to a large number of news portals, articles or individual posts from people they are not well aware of, and hence they do not know their political viewpoint and bias, like they know of the news media portals they usually subscribe to. Hence it is based on the judgment on how they react to the news. Increasingly, such click bait culture of exposure can tilt people’s views on certain issues if they were strategically exposed to increasing number of sources with similar viewpoints and alleged ‘objectivity’ in their analysis. This underscores the importance of an objective regulation process which does not hinder the discourse or disenfranchise certain sources of information.

These are the questions that beat the very purpose and merit of the free exchange of information which we expect from the internet. Information is power and given certain actors have a monopoly of the information sector, why would we allow the social media sites and search engines to determine the extent to which they can use that power and effectively take away that power from the citizens of democracies worldwide?

Democracies exist in a system of balance of rights. My right to swing my wand ends when it nears another person’s face. This well-known principal is the most applicable one to the issue of internet regulation and made the intellects of today debate on whether that principle could be maintained in a completely unregulated source of mass information.

I am a proponent of regulation when it is a system of check and balance. Where it can ensure free speech to the extent that it can disagree with other’s viewpoints but not be something that racially attacks or incites hate against people with different viewpoints. But a lacking of the current regulatory bodies are guidelines to better make the people aware of the language and content that qualifies as hate speech. Such confusion may increasingly arise due to the current trend of right wing populist leaders using rhetorical strategies to incite hate. Hence, the people often do not understand why they cannot do the same in social media.

Facebook has a team of approximately 20,000 people who actively read and judge whether published posts or groups have inflammatory speeches or ‘problematic’ content such as nude photos. Even though Facebook with their algorithm of news accessibility ensures unbiased representation news of different opinions, certain political factions have empirical evidence of it being otherwise.

The Republican senators believe that these upstarts of the historically liberal Silicon Valley area are increasingly liberal and left leaning in their views and have a greater tendency of censoring the views of the right wing political parties and business institutions. Manifestation of such indignation against a news portal can be instrumental in shaping the major decisions that average citizens take in terms of policies that shape their politics. It can make people sceptical of the liberals as people who are not open to pluralistic societies as they claim to be. It further can create echo chambers of right wing groups and incentivise them to hold rallies where hate speech is further spewed out.

When the general mass view that the biggest source of information is not coherent with the ideals of neither first amendment nor a completely neutral news source, they question the credibility of that source and increasingly shift toward a certain political belief and start distrusting the views of the other groups. The liberal viewpoint is the idea of engagement and discourse of different beliefs but that aim is not met when one group is increasingly disenfranchised by regulations.

Who would be the best actor to have the responsibility? May be the state-comprising of people representing the cumulative opinions and ideals of the people who elected them can be the best actor? The example of my own state, People’s Republic of Bangladesh, serves as an empirical evidence of the fact that state is not the answer.

A social movement of students for road safety was exploited by miscreants of ‘anti-state’ parties. Rumours of deaths of student protesters after attacks by state police and ruling party activists and passionate rants by celebrities and politicians, urging students and people to go to streets to protect the students, went viral within minutes. Agitated students fell for the fake news and demonstrated mass protests. The government was quick to act by debunking the rumours and exposing the people who propagated the rumours of death, rape and massive arrests of the protesting students.

But the aftermath of the incident was far more problematic. The state capitalised on this incident by enacting the controversial ICT Act 2013. It contains a clause which made criticism of the head of the state a cyber-crime which can result in prison time of around 7 years. The states worldwide have used such acts in the name of cyber protection to thwart opposition movements and propagated illusions of development and well-being of the people. This is a very problematic notion which does not allow us to use internet as the only safe space we can have. It threatens the ideals of free speech and limits the utility of social discourse and effective policy discussion of the general mass and news organisations.

Such acts are not exclusive to Bangladesh as it is a trend seen in many states shifting towards one party rule under the veil of democracy. The Chinese crackdown and surveillance of internet is another example of why the state is not the best actor in regulation of the social media forums and the search engines of the internet.

So neither the state, nor the employees of these upstarts can be trusted at the current status quo. There are talks of artificial intelligence being used for an objective and a neutral analysis and regulation of the news in the internet but it seems like a debate for the future. Today, how can we limit the human interaction and the bias in the process of deciding the news people see? Deregulation is not the answer in any world. Taking into account the trade-offs and the caveats of the current world, we can only hope for these giant tech companies to be transparent on their ambitions.

They can invest in teams of independent reviewers in their censorship bodies so that claims of political bias in regulation can be minimised. Their regulation needs to have clearer lines of distinction between hateful and acceptable content. We need to better conceptualise the world of technology and information and make the everyday users to be more aware of the limit of their rights in such platforms and its impacts on the people, economy and the government.

Anujit Saha is a student of SFX Greenherald International School.

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email