How to check Facebook's influence on Indian democracy
By Urvashi Aneja, Tandem Research

The Wall Street Journal’s recent report claiming Facebook’s top public policy executive in India opposed applying the platform’s community guidelines to inflammatory posts by certain BJP leaders has set off a political furore. But, this mudslinging is futile and distracts from the core issue.

Here are five steps that can check Facebook’s influence on Indian democracy.

1. No political advertising should be permitted on Facebook

Facebook has repeatedly argued that banning political advertising will harm small political parties or independent candidates, who rely on the platform to reach people.

But this assumes that Facebook provides an even playing field. This is far from true.

Political parties with larger financial resources are likely to dominate, just as they do in the analogue world. This makes political bias of individual Facebook employees irrelevant. The issue is structural — Facebook as a company is accountable to its largest clients. Today its largest client is the BJP, but it could easily be any other political party.

This is a problem that will continue to repeat itself, unless we disallow political advertising on the platform all together.

2. Individual data must not be sold to advertisers

This may seem like a radical idea, but it isn’t. We already have examples of successful alternative business models. Netherland’s public broadcaster, NPO, for example, saw its ad revenue grow after it switched from behavioural advertising to contextual advertising. The same is true for the New York Times in Europe.

Contextual targeting allows advertisers to display relevant ads based on the website’s content rather than using the data about the visitor.

3. Algorithms must be auditable by independent civil society organisations

Facebook often frames the issue of content moderation as one of free speech. But the issue is not what is said on the platform, but what is algorithmically amplified by the platform. Algorithms decide what types of content are visible or invisible on the platform, and amplify content that produces vivid emotions.

Facebook should be required to undertake algorithmic audits by independent authorities and these should be publicly available. There should also be frameworks to identify, assess and penalise harmful algorithmic amplification.

4. Update competition policy to check market dominance

Facebook’s influence over Indian democracy is also a matter of scale. Data intelligence, network effects, and strategic mergers and acquisitions have allowed it to dominate the market. And this market power has allowed it to exert inordinate amounts of civic influence.

Competition policy is therefore necessary to address its civic power. Regulators need to consider how control over data can both harm consumers and reduce competition.

5. Mandate platform interoperability to check network effects

Network effects have enabled Facebook to acquire market dominance, and hence civic influence. The more users there are on the platform, the more valuable the platform becomes to other users. And as the platform becomes more popular, users face a high cost of switching to other social media platforms.

Platform interoperability will permit Facebook users to talk to users across platforms, and vice versa, just like Airtel users can call Jio users, at no extra cost or inconvenience. By doing so, platform interoperability allows consumers to choose whichever platform they like. It will also be a boon for other businesses, which will be less dependent on Big Tech firms.

In proposing these interventions, I recognise the tremendous benefits that Facebook brings to Indian consumers, markets, and even government. None of the above recommendations will change those benefits. Maybe there will be less personalisation, a few less conveniences, and a little less data intelligence for innovation. But the core positive value that the platform generates — to allow people to connect, communicate, and even do business — will remain.

Facebook is not just enabling new business efficiencies and customer conveniences, but plays a crucial role in India’s development story. The world is also looking to India — India’s policy interventions in this space will set precedents for other economies.

Note: Urvashi Aneja is Co-Founder & Director of Tandem Research, and Associate Fellow, Chatham House. She tweets at @urvashi_aneja. Views expressed above are the author’s own.





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