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India and Social Media

In the short term, Secretary Sawhney needs to schedule a meeting with the heads of Facebook and WhatsApp looking to regulate the content available in India. They can quickly develop ways to censor harmful content – especially in a dangerous situation such as this. Tech companies have already developed strategies using artificial intelligence to combat terrorism on their sites. Sawhney can use his resources to point out specifically harmful elements of content on social media and guide the focus of this technology. This technology should quickly pick up content related to these rumors about kidnappers.

A friend of mine at HKS mentioned how Facebook adapted after the 2016 election. They had an agile process of monitoring these elections that kept changing with each passing election. It’s still a process that’s being developed, but Facebook is making strides towards reducing harmful impacts they may have on elections.

Yet, Facebook was driven to make this change with the proper motivation: threats of U.S. Congressional regulation and widespread public dismay.

While Secretary Sawhney is speaking with the heads of WhatsApp and Facebook, he needs to do more than address this short term concern, but start to address social media into the future. He can influence tech companies using two different tools: possible sanctions and domestic competition.

Regulating tech companies, especially social media platforms, is becoming a popular idea around the world. For a long time, these platforms have operated in an unregulated space free to create whatever they could imagine. This helped lead to the massive expansion of many social media platforms around the world. But as they grow in size, these platforms have started to have an outsized effect on society that may require regulation.

The EU has been leading the charge against tech companies. Germany already instituted a hate speech law fining companies up to 50 million euros if they don’t remove harmful content within 24 hours. Many other countries are similarly in the process of regulating companies like Uber, Google, and Facebook. And it makes sense! These are American companies so EU governments don’t even make much money off of the companies.

In a similar move, the Indian government can start creating legislation to regulate Facebook, WhatsApp, and similar apps. In exchange for more lenient legislation, the Indian government can ask for some sway into how these companies regulate content. So beyond dealing with these imminent attacks, the Indian government may be able to prevent similar problems down the road. Also, tech companies will likely be willing to play ball because India is a huge market…over 1.3 billion people. They will likely not be willing to lose this market or have very tough regulations in exchange for maintaining the “integrity” of their services.

Also, the threat of local competitors may make tech companies more likely to listen to Indian government regulation/input. India should start to make the tech space more competitive by using things like subsidies to help local tech companies compete. They can even use these funds to create their own platforms (in a similar vein to China). Companies like Facebook and WhatsApp will want to remain competitive in India, so they will likely listen to requests from the Indian government. If not, India can say that their own local versions of platforms will be developed shortly. Thereafter, India could just ban these platforms wholesale in favor of their own. This is an extreme threat, but tech companies like Facebook and WhatsApp would likely not want to test the veracity of these claims and instead listen to Indian Government input.

Overall, a conversation with these tech companies right now would probably be productive. No one wants people to die. But to exert long term control over tech companies, the Indian government can regulate these companies and support local tech development. This will pressure companies, like Facebook, to play ball with the Indian government to keep this market.

As an aside, regulation is a double-edged sword.

It could actually help these tech companies. Television networks pushed for a uniform regulation in the United States back in the 1980s. The idea was that this would help them avoid managing differing regulations in each region of the country and develop a common set of standards. Also, negotiating regulations with the federal government helped both sides work through key issues like consumer protections. Eventually finding a middle ground of agreement, the 1984 Cable Act helped spur massive growth of cable in the United States.

Yet, it may threaten net neutrality that helps all people have equal access to the internet. If governments negotiate with tech companies, maybe even playing favorites, they will determine the winners and losers of the internet as well as the content available. This could be a slippery slope towards a very regulated internet based on government interests. I think this is an extreme outcome, but this initial regulation would be a starting point.


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