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Opinion | Creating safe spaces on World Wide Web

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  • The startup-driven digital revolution has resulted in value for citizens through delivery of both government and private sector services, but it can cost people their data
  • There’s a need for new codes of ethics that define how tech and society interact to promote societal well-being

The first mobile phone call in India was made in 1995. Two and half decades later, India has more than 1.3 billion mobile connections, close to 600 million internet users, the cheapest rate of data globally, and the highest data usage per user in the world at 9.8 gigabyte (GB) per month.

We have come a long way from counting minutes and megabytes to using the mobile phone as an integral part of our daily activities.

This digital revolution has resulted in remarkable value for citizens through seamless delivery of both government and private sector services. For example, transferring money from one bank account to another takes seconds, paying electricity bills is easy and booking train tickets is a matter of few clicks. The latest movies are available to watch at home and it is raining discounts on shopping apps.

Above all, mobile tech is levelling the playing field for the underserved. It is bringing information, news, services and entertainment to the masses in rural and semi urban areas. All of this is delivered in regional languages and short-form video formats. In addition, platforms such as TikTok have made celebrities out of regular folks.

Undoubtedly, mobile tech has made life easier and made services (and fame) accessible to all. However, there also lies a cautionary tale.

Mobile tech exposes us to new kinds of digital and financial risks, which we are not fully equipped to prevent.

Social media companies compete for our attention, which results in mobile phones occupying prime time in our lives, sometimes driving us to digital addiction. Digital social spaces provide anonymity, which is great for free speech but can be stifling for nuanced debate and dialogue. They fuel polarization of ideas while providing a free run for peddlers of misinformation.

The world over, tech users, governments and tech corporations are facing a moment of truth as they realize this. We need new norms, behaviours, codes of ethics and regulations that define how technology and society interact to promote societal well-being.

Here are four recommendations for technology users that can initiate progress towards promoting healthy online spaces.

Safety comes first

First, at the basic level, tech users should ensure their own safety, data security and digital well being.

News reports about payment frauds perpetrated through “hacking", gaining illicit access to phones and email accounts—have become far too common. Users need to go beyond protecting their log-in details and one-time-passwords (OTPs), and enable safety measures such as two-factor authentication. This feature can be an effective safeguard against unauthorized access to online accounts; however, very few use it.

Only 10% of Gmail accounts have enabled two-factor authentication. There is a need to double check every financial transaction before authorising online. Further, to manage one’s screen time, people can utilize one of the many apps—Digital Detox, Antisocial and Space, to name a few—that help regulate excessive use of phones.

Second, users need to be aware that their online usage behaviour and history is tracked by multiple third-party websites enabled through browsers for delivering targeted advertising. Thankfully, with growing consumer awareness and regulatory oversight, websites have started seeking users’ consent through pop up requests. Most browsers also provide options to disable third-party tracking. This option is available on popular browsers such as Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer.

Globally, a quarter of users’ have utilized some form of anti-tracking features. If users find the targeted ads intrusive or wish to secure privacy of their online activities, disabling third-party tracking can be a handy tool.

Third, users should fulfil their digital civic duties to enhance healthy online spaces. Discouraging fake news circulation on WhatsApp groups, supporting adoption of privacy-protecting services (such as Web browsers with better privacy features), reporting objectionable social media users, and advancing awareness about safe online practices are a select set of desirable civic duties.

Lastly, it is critical to support consumer protection groups that are championing digital literacy and advocating for better online products for consumers. For example, Consumer Reports is an advocacy organization that aims to provide transparency about safety of apps and is helping users take charge of their data. They help answer questions such as which mobile payment apps best protect privacy? In India, Arrka, an information risk management firm, recently reported that about 66% of Android apps have access to users’ email and social media account details.

Such research reports and advocacy with mass audience can promote actions for online safety.

The interplay between technology and society is complex.

Awareness and activism of consumers can only solve a slice of the myriad set of challenges before us. Comprehensive solutions require a multi-stakeholder approach—tech developers should create responsible products that enable safety and privacy by design, and governments can enact regulations and policies that protect users’ rights while promoting healthy competition.

Sushant Kumar is principal at Omidyar Network India.

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