Committed to providing a multi-stakeholder platform to discuss issues relating to Internet governance, human rights online and the future of the Internet, the third Digital Citizen Summit (DCS) was organised on November 1-2, 2018, in New Delhi. India and other South Asian countries have made leapfrogs in the technology sector to adapt to digital lifestyles. In recent years, there has been a disturbing trend towards mass surveillance by government agencies, the invasion of privacy, and acts to curb free speech online. Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) organised the first DCS in November 2016 to address these issues.
The key objective of the summit, since then, has been to generate actionable policy-based recommendations and lay down steps to proliferate digital inclusion and promote human rights online by inviting scholars, researchers, academics, civil society organisations and government representatives to engage in a dialogue through presentation of papers, participating in sessions, organising workshops and striking conversations at the summit.
Taking this idea forward, the third DCS was opened with a panel on ‘Information Disorders: Disrupting Digital Citizenship’. Moderated by South Asia Editor for Asia Times, Saikat Datta, who opened the house by underlining the impact of technology on productivity while reducing the number of jobs, engaged the panelists in a discussion on priorities when it comes to the Internet.
Joining Datta on the panel were Regional Director (Asia-Pacific) at the Internet Society Rajnesh Singh, Adviser for Communication and Information (South Asia) Al-Amin Yusuph, Founder-Director of Internet Democracy Project Dr. Anja Kovacs, Executive Director at Internet Freedom Project Apar Gupta, Executive Director at the Secretariat of the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation Amandeep Gill, Founder Director of Digital Empowerment Foundation Osama Manzar.
Welcoming the audience, Manzar noted, “A few years ago, we would have never thought of information disorder. In the last couple of decades, we have come from ICTD to digital revolution and information society, then further moved into the area of mobile revolution, which is touching everybody’s lives. In the last five years, we have started talking about privacy and security. And the words misinformation and fake news have never been used as much as they have in the last one year. However, we must understand that while we’re talking about these issues of the Internet world, half the world is still unconnected. In a country like India, where 70 per cent of the population is offline, how do we tackle the disorder that 30 per cent of the country’s population is exposed to when the rest don’t even have access to information?”
Seconding Manzar’s thought, Gill, who had joined the summit via Skype from Geneva, elaborated, “While half the world does not have access to the Internet, there are those who have the access but may not have pertinent content accessible to them due to the barriers of language or agency of developing content. Then there is the issue of vulnerabilities in small, marginalised and developing countries. There is an emerging dynamic around trying to understand inclusiveness through innovation and access gaps where inequalities are coming in. We need greater participation for digital equalities. Risk (issue of elite countries and communities), access (people struggling for basic rights), rights-based approach and the agency of content — all of these issues need to be addresses with equal priority.”
Reminding people of the agency of developing content, Gill added, “Halloween is increasingly being celebrated by affluent children of South Delhi, however, the day has no cultural context for them. This is because of the over-representation of one culture of the other.” This becomes extremely pertinent for a country like India where languages, culture and traditions changes every few miles.
Reflecting on overrepresentation of one culture over the idea, the panellists agreed that the Internet is making humans the some total of their data, which is being controlled by someone else. “So where should the data reside, according to the rights perspective?” Datta asked?
“Access in itself has no value, the question is access to what. There is so little agreement on the topic of data. Should consent be part of the framework? But what is data? If you look at the Data Protection Bill, it views data as a resource or oil, which is up for grabs. It’s pretty similar to how western countries used to think of colonisation. Data is there to be mined and exploited. However, the Internet Democracy Project looks at data as an extension of your body,” said Anja.
Sharing examples from the country where PDS shop owners have refused to give ration to families they’ve known for 30 years simply because the biometric machine did not recognise the family, Anja lamented that data has become a matter of life and death for many ever since it has become a resource. “Recent Supreme Court judgments have been brilliant, they support privacy of data and privacy of body,” she added. “But, on the other hand, Facebook can actually see when a person is depressed and who is more likely to commit suicide. It uses this data to share tips. But when I heard this, I was completely freaked out. It’s helpful for people who may commit suicide, but they are also collecting data on companies and spaces that are more depression-prone. That’s a lot of data that is being collected. They are profiling spaces and places.”
While agreeing to the issues of profiling, Yusuph also believes data and AI is able to make systems respond. “But we have a serious problem when it comes to linguistic diversity. In the last 50 years, India has lost 550 languages, which means those languages will not feature into future technologies. If you look at the data we have today, Hindi has got less than 1 per cent representation on the Internet. There are so many scripts that need to be recognised. There are so many languages where we don’t have OCR technologies. Even if you have text in those languages, there is no way you can have computer systems read them. This will lead to further exclusion of communities. The only solution is to encourage states to invest more into resource languages and make sure the linguistic diversity gap is closed.”
This linguistic gap is evidently visible in India where 70 per cent of the unconnected lives in rural India and lack understanding of the English language, the dominating language of the Internet. But every new mobile phone connection, every new technology, is a building block in the changing economy.
“Are you seeing a monopolisation of data? Is that a function of economic power because tech leads to better economy?” Datta asked.
Responding to his question, Singh raised his concerns. “Every time a country in the world wants to go ‘digital’ but not every country is embracing it in the same way nor do they have social and economic capabilities to leverage it. What a person can do with a phone in Korea is very different what a person can do in India. Depending on what part of the world you’re in, 4G data could be 250 kbps or it could be 10 mbps. The digital divide is large and varied in India, which is not getting better but only getting worse. Then there is the issue of data monopolisation. There are a lot of countries that have gone ahead and built stuff, they release things for people who don’t realise what they’re giving up in exchange. Some companies have totally monopolised data. The amount of data they hold, across countries and social or economic classes, is massive. They can see what you do, how you do and when you do. When there is so much information floating around, how do you use the collected information is quite important. There have to be clear guidelines on collecting and using data. At present, there is no harmonisation across the globe on how companies treat data. There are some data protection laws in the US, India has none, and Europe has stronger laws under GDPR.”
There is also some responsibility that lies with the users. He added, “With access to the Internet, people have access to information. Everyone who is online can consume or produce content, so the only way you can control the masses is through misinformation. Hence, we should be using critical thinking. If someone shares something with you, don’t believe it, question it. You have a brain machine. Use it.”