The balancing act

Topics Social Media

A two-member bench of the Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Centre to frame rules for the moderation of social media and to file an affidavit detailing the same within three weeks. The observation was in connection with the transfer of various cases pertaining to the linking of Aadhaar with social media accounts. In effect, this would imply that the identity of every Indian social media user would be available to the government. Even otherwise, the government had been attempting to force major social media platforms to provide methods for content to be traced to the originating accounts.

While the court directed the government to maintain a balance between impinging on the privacy of individuals using social media and offering redress to victims of trolling, it is hard to see how this would be possible under the existing technology. If the option of anonymity is removed, so is privacy, since social media content is, by its very nature, public, or at least visible to many people. Social media accounts are indeed often used to troll individuals. These platforms can also be employed for the rapid dissemination of fake news and damaging rumours. The flip-side of the story is that social media is a powerful tool for whistle blowers and it has often been the channel by which criminal activity has been first uncovered, or brought to public notice. Countless individuals, corporations, civil servants and politicians have been embarrassed by revelations of their wrongdoing on social media.

It is also a powerful platform for expressing dissenting political opinions, and coordinating protests against unjust laws. Every mass movement of the last decade, from the first Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, to the recent protests in Hong Kong and the ongoing battle against climate change, has been enabled by the existence of social media. All this would not have been possible without the capacity of social media users to remain anonymous and yet be heard. Indeed, the protests in Hong Kong have featured a fascinating technological battle between protesters striving to maintain anonymity and a regime doing whatever it can to uncover the identity of activists. Every undemocratic regime in the world would like social media to lose its veil of privacy. Many have banned platforms that allow for privacy precisely due to fears that these may be used to express dissent, or throw a light on repressive actions. India, for example, has faced flak for shutting down the Internet in Kashmir, with activists alleging that this gives security forces a free hand to indulge in abuse and excessive use of force.  

It may be argued that the benefits to society from protecting the privacy of individuals using social media far exceed the ills that arise from the dissemination of fake news. Moreover, privacy is a fundamental right as the Supreme Court affirmed two years ago. There are legitimate fears that any regulation that the government frames in haste will be flawed, or applied selectively, to harass political opposition. Until specific legislation that defends the fundamental right to privacy is written into law, anything that impinges on that right should not occur. Trolling and the spread of fake news can be contained and committed under existing regulations by the use of sensible policing.


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