BusinessDay

The internet, free speech and responsibility (2)

India has set new rules for internet platforms. And Twitter is complying. Thus, when requests that meet the legal parameters are made to Twitter to remove posts, it must now do so within a specified timeframe in law.

It is not likely a coincidence that India’s new internet rules, which came into effect in late-May 2021, but had reportedly been in the pipeline since 2018, were announced just weeks after Twitter refused to comply with some of the government’s requests, which were along the lines of the obligations now compulsorily mandated in law on Twitter and other internet platforms.

Google, Facebook, and other big tech firms are affected by the new Indian rules as well, as are their local competitors. To comply, the platforms are reportedly having to re-configure their operations and systems.

Other countries are likely to follow India’s example. And while their intentions would vary, from the altruistic to the mischievous, recent unfortunate incidents spurred by social media manipulation in the United Kingdom, South Africa and elsewhere, suggest regulation is now no longer a debate.

Read Also: The internet, free speech and responsibility (1)

Even the American government has started flagging social media posts it considers incendiary or grossly misleading; covid-19 vaccine misinformation on Facebook, for instance.

The question now is how to regulate, not whether to regulate. There is a serious risk of overreach

The question now is how to regulate, not whether to regulate. There is a serious risk of overreach.

Apart from promulgating new laws and flagging misinformation, governments have also begun to avail themselves of so-called “technologies of remote control” to surreptitiously or forcefully invade the online privacy of their citizens towards the end of curtailing free speech, putting down dissent and in some cases, subverting the will of the electorate.

In Deibert’s (2020) “Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society”, vivid accounts are given of how some governments now employ “social media manipulation, digital subversion and cyber-espionage” to stifle free speech and muzzle dissent.

More scaringly, these technologies of remote control, like smart CCTV cameras, AI-enabled facial recognition systems, automatic licence plate readers, cell phone tower simulators and mobile data extraction systems, now make it so easy for them to do so, writes Deibert.

The unfortunate Saudi Khashoggi affair is instructive. According to Deibert (2020), Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi, a former Washington Post columnist and ardent critic of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, was extensively surveilled across the world by Saudi authorities for a long time, before finally meeting his death at the hands of intelligence agents in his country’s embassy in Istanbul.

Saudi Arabia’s “offensive counter-dissent cyber-operations” was key to Khashoggi’s entrapment, writes Deibert. Firstly, global consulting firm McKinsey was mandated to profile Khashoggi and other dissident social media influencers. Secondly, Saudi-born engineers in Silicon Valley were paid to gain employment in Twitter for the primary purpose of extracting confidential data about these dissidents. And thirdly, the Saudi security services contracted a regime-friendly local PR firm to overwhelm any anti-regime narratives on social media with pro-regime ones.

Using Israeli-based NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, Saudi authorities were also able to infiltrate the digital devices of these persons of interest, view their emails, texts and WhatsApp messages, and turn on their phone cameras and microphones to watch and listen to them, Deibert’s investigations reveal.

Besides potential uses for blackmail, the information gathered via the spyware literally enabled Saudi intelligence to conduct extensive digital surveillance on their subjects from afar, with results that a proximate and more expensive physical operation would have been hardpressed to deliver.

By the time Mr Khashoggi walked through the gates of his country’s embassy in Istanbul that fateful day, Saudi authorities had, unbeknownst to him, become well aware of some of the most intimate details of his life and that of those around him.

We perhaps know about the intricate details of Mr Khashoggi’s murder and the role Saudi intelligence agencies played because of his global profile and network. But the technological capacity that enabled Saudi authorities to surveil him so, is now available to any government, firm or individual with the wherewithal to procure the now commercially available remote control technologies.

Commercial spyware by “companies like Gamma Group, Hacking Team, Cyberbit and NSO Group have been deployed in countries with brutal track records of repression, like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkmenistan, Rwanda, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, and others (Deibert, 2020).”

Undoubtedly, today’s governments have at their behest some very unbelievably cheap but extremely effective digital surveillance technologies. They have to be regulated too.

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