Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Opinion | Twitter furore shows need to empower local executives

It is about time the state recognizes that not all solutions can come through policy action

The quicker technology companies operating in India realize the merits of empowering their local executives, the faster the Indian digital economy will come of age. Technology regularly outpaces regulation globally, necessitating nuanced debates between industry and government in every major jurisdiction, and therefore, decision-making agility on both sides. Additionally, India has a complex digital culture that doesn’t easily lend itself to quick fixes by government or industry. This is evident in the case of ongoing discussions on regulating social media platforms that are marred by the lack of a solutions-oriented approach on either side.

India’s Standing Committee on Information Technology recently summoned Twitter to testify before it on matters relating to “safeguarding citizen’s rights on social media platforms". This ostensibly followed from a protest lodged with the committee on selective censorship of political views online. Though some local Twitter officials did appear before the committee this week, the company had initially sought a deferment citing short notice and reportedly submitted that “no one who engages publicly for Twitter India makes enforcement decisions". If reports are true, the submission is a rare and candid admission that local executives are not empowered to negotiate their own interests.

In the past, policymakers were predominantly concerned with providing access to the internet, which led to many debates on privatization of information infrastructure. Good sense prevailed in letting private sector investments flourish, precipitating a virtuous cycle of greater connectivity and consumer access. While India still has millions of “digital have-nots"—individuals who remain unconnected—it also has a substantial infrastructural backbone with close to half a billion broadband users expected to come online before 2020.

A corollary of exponentially greater consumer access to the internet is that policymakers must now contend with much more complexity in digital markets, a reality that industry executives must also empathise with. Moreover, the government’s under-preparedness to manage new challenges at the intersection of technology and society may prompt overregulation of new markets. Where the internet was meant to liberate society as a force removed from it, it now appears closer to a manifestation of many of the ills of society, such as hate speech and violent extremism, phenomena that are particularly concentrated on social media. While curtailing online speech would be antithetical to democratic values, global companies must recognize local context. Online speech is largely unregulated in advanced jurisdictions because of better state-capacity to deal with negative outcomes offline.

Tech scholars like Daphne Keller have characterized internet policies today as fighting poorly defined harms with remedies that remain untested. Indian policymakers have been unable to pinpoint the nature and quantum of harms caused through social media platforms. To wit, there is no official report on the mechanics of lynch mobs—how are they triggered, how online misinformation campaigns are funded, or even what role political actors play, if any. Equally, adequate remedies such as the balancing of stricter enforcement with institutional and legal safeguards for protecting free speech and expression are rarely discussed within government.

Protectionism adds another dimension to the mix of new digital policy questions that are only just being addressed. Recent debates on e-commerce policies, data protection laws, and regulation of online intermediaries, characterize this dimension. How do we protect interests of domestic companies without being brazenly discriminatory? Should we look at global standards to mould domestic templates for internet governance? Or should we forge our own prescriptive and exceptional regulatory norms in isolation?

Local executives of global companies can play an important role in resolving such questions from their informed vantage points. They have line of sight on the dynamic landscape of global markets. Simultaneously, they are well-placed to leverage global exposure to the cutting-edge of internet governance. Instead, most such executives are compelled to take conservative positions in India and resist any hint of enhanced government interface, even as their global counterparts engage in serious debates in the US and EU. Consequently, the Indian state acts in its limited self-interest by overregulating what it feels it can’t control.

Equally, it is about time that the state recognizes that not all solutions can come from within. Some global companies have shown the ability to propose and implement practical solutions to local challenges. For instance, government-industry dialogue has led to the adoption of a Code of Best Practices by nine large online curated content firms this January. The code redoubles industry commitment to protecting kids from accessing adult content. Transparent self-regulation can protect free speech and promote plurality of opinions, whereas prescriptive government regulation almost always leads to excessive censorship. Proactive standard-setting must be welcomed as a first wave of corporate enlightenment in digital India, a wave that can truly lift all boats by securing values shared by policymakers, industry and citizens.

Vivan Sharan & Trishi Jindal are technology policy experts at Koan Advisory Group, New Delhi. Views are personal.

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