Had a very fruitful meeting with Sheryl Sandberg. She pointed out that India is a very important country for Facebook, considering the high number of active Facebook users in India’ — Facebook post of prime minister Narendra Modi.
It is well known by now that social media played a very important role in Modi’s spectacularly successful election campaign. It is also well-known that not only the prime minister but his entire party has avidly embraced social media.
So has India, young and old, as the above post indicates. And so also has the entire world since one in every four humans on this planet is a member of Facebook.
So, one could ask, where is the problem? It so happens that there is one and a major one at that.I am not talking about dangers to individual privacy and other factors that have been discussed to death in academic, political, social, legal and philosophical forums.
Social media is the inevitable evolution of human interaction brought about by technology, just as the postal service, the telegraph and the telephone (and more recently the mobile phone) triggered in the past.
It is undoubtedly a very potent tool for interacting and keeping in touch, and the extreme mobility and constant connectivity provided by smartphones and tablets have multiplied its potency and universal appeal. It is a very convenient tool for spreading one’s message, and therefore, a very effective political device as Modi’s campaign has demonstrated.
Unfortunately it is also a very potent tool for causing revolts, revolutions and political uprisings. The earliest major successful movement started on Facebook was the one against the ruthless FARC guerrillas of Colombia in 2010. The upheaval in Egypt, the Arab Spring revolts, Iranian protests – in all of them social media played a major role. It can also be used to spread lies and rumours, as some Pakistan based activists did during the 2012 Assam riots.
However technology has been a double-edged weapon since the beginning of time – when the first human discovered that a rock could be used to kill animals for food he also found that he could use that technology to crush his rival’s head. So this cannot be the problem.
A fact that escapes attention is that all major social networking platforms – Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon are US based and owned corporations subject to US laws, transforming it into an oligarchy unrivalled in history. They are subject to US laws which, by extension get applied to the rest of the world as well.
For example, despite strict European data privacy laws Microsoft has admitted that, to comply with the US Patriot Act, they would provide to US authorities personal information that may reside on its European cloud (servers). Yahoo took refuge behind US court decrees to circumvent French court orders. Google and Twitter have attempted to defy orders of Indian courts.
Therefore, despite some push-backs, notably from Europe, the rest of the world is unwittingly being drawn into the US legal net through the activities of these omnipresent Internet giants. US courts and legislature are well-known for their pro-business stance which means that these giants are able to get legal sanction for activities normally prohibited in other jurisdictions. But that is only part of the story.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as 2010 Man-of-the-Year. During his interview with Grossman, Time’s journalist, at Facebook headquarters a curious incident happened, best described in Grossman’s own words: “The door opened, and a distinguished-looking gray-haired man burst in — it’s the only way to describe his entrance — trailed by a couple of deputies.
He was both the oldest person in the room by 20 years and the only one wearing a suit. He was in the building, he explained with the delighted air of a man about to secure ironclad bragging rights forever, and he just had to step in and introduce himself to Zuckerberg: Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, pleased to meet you.”
If the director of FBI seeks introduction to the CEO of a corporation there has to be good reason. It’s because, again in Grossman’s words, “(Facebook) has a richer, more intimate hoard of information about its (US) citizens than any nation has ever had, and the U.S. government sometimes comes knocking, subpoena in hand, looking to borrow some.”
That rich hoard of information is not limited to US citizens – Facebook has a 1.3 billion user base, and the US government, when required, comes knocking for their information too. (The Indian government also does that but that is another story).
In fact the US has openly stated its intention to use social media as a tool for furthering its ideology and foreign sovereign interests. When Egypt was engulfed in crisis Hilary Clinton defended the use of Facebook and Twitter in the Egyptian uprising and in fact urged Egypt not to block social media.
This brings us to the real problem. On the one hand BJP has vehemently protested the US government’s surveillance of and gathering of data about its activities.
But The prime minister himself has welcomed the COO of the company that probably has richer and more intimate hoard of information than the US government can gather through surveillance; and he wants his administration to whole-heartedly embrace its technology. Therein lies the problem.
The enemy is within. What are the dangers? Are there solutions? These questions need to be examined.