How does one weed out malicious content on internet in a democracy like India?

End to end encryption of messages is sacrosanct for social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram. Neither the origin nor the delivery point can be divulged irrespective of the situation. This appears to be difficult to acknowledge for the government seeking to rein in internet-based platforms that have seen a proliferation of fake news, rumours and child porn on their networks apart from becoming tools for influencing electoral outcomes through the spread of unverified content. Despite the assurances provided by Facebook officials, the government may not like to take chances — especially where it believes that the outcome of elections can be influenced by accessing voter data to analyse likely voting behaviour. However, paring down the internet in a country as big as India will have enormous implications apart from being logistically impossible.

Government agencies have no access to messenger services across platforms. In such a situation, ensuring internal and external security has become tougher for the security apparatus. That seems to be the reason why the telecom department has sought suggestions from telecom operators and internet services providers on ways to block social media apps like Facebook or WhatsApp in times of crisis to contain the spread of ‘fake news’. For instance, internet services in a few districts across Jammu and Kashmir are shut down every now and then to limit the spread of messages by terrorists. Even in Left-extremist dominated areas, internet connectivity is either blocked or limited during encounters with armed gangs to prohibit those spreading terror content. Alternatively, mobile towers are jammed to limit the channels of communication.

The spread of fake news has been cited as one big reason for recent incidents of mob lynching and violence perpetrated by caste and religious groups that were responsible for disturbing peace and tranquillity in parts of the country. In particular, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the cow belt region have become notorious for such violence.

Article 69A of the IT Act empowers the government to block public access to information that flowed through computer devices and mobile phones etc. Advertisements in the print media or campaigns on the internet against fake news have had very little impact to date. Hence, the government seems to have felt the urgent need to exercise its authority on the flow of information through these social media platforms.

One way to prevent the spread of fake news, rumours, live videos of suicides or child porn is for government to list all apps and social networking sites on which such content appears routinely. This negative list may have to be readied and shared with telecom companies and ISPs. Enforcing the blockage without disrupting internet services will need technology interface between all stakeholders including consumer organisations. There is no reason why industry should not provide options to centre on regulating content owing to ‘security’ considerations. In countries like US and France, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had conceded his company’s follies with the clear objective of making money on the sly while these operations led to disastrous consequences for the countries concerned. Zuckerberg had to face senate and Parliament committee hearings to defend Facebook.

In a thriving democracy like India, the Chinese model of across-the-board restrictions on internet access or blocking search engines and websites may not be an option. Even exercising such an option is undesirable. The phased movement of servers into India from foreign geographies may also have to be considered by IT, communication and social networking companies to ensure security, integrity and flow of content in this country.