The non-politics of outrage

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Parminder Jeet Singh

We are witnessing mass outrage over certain actions or non-actions of Facebook (FB) and a British political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA), regarding the use of personal data for political messaging during the US presidential elections. But digging into the issue, it is difficult to see what is really novel in the current disclosures that was previously not known. It is also unclear why the facts that these disclosures centre on are more important than many other well-known facts about the underlying issue of data, digital controls and exploitation. It is not evident what the real concerns underlying the outrage are. And lastly, there is the important question of what it really means for countries such as India.
CA’s role in the US elections has been known for quite some time. So now after a whistle-blower’s account and an undercover investigation, if those responsible for data and digital policies behave as if any of this is news to them, it is either disingenuous or unacceptably naive and incompetent.
As FB has clarified, the only illegal element here is that a research company transferred data to CA against FB policies. But both the company concerned and FB itself could have legitimately used the same user data for the same purpose of psychometrics-based micro-targeted political messaging for any of their paying clients. What exactly do we then have a problem with? Just with violation of FB’s policies, or with psychometrics-based political messaging and the collective national damage that it causes? Is it, for instance, alright if FB itself did similar things for its paying clients, which it has provisions for?
Digital controls
Meddling in elections is a most serious issue, but there are other equally important data-centric threats – from complete data-based control over all activities and actors in a sector by platform companies (think Uber, but the process will soon reach as afar as agriculture and manufacturing) to that of actual informational warfare, by name, which can wreck countries. Interestingly, CA’s parent company also offers data-intelligence services to militaries, and indeed countries such as the US have extensive informational warfare projects based on social media and other micro-informational sources for various countries. Global digital companies such as Microsoft and Google are known to cooperate closely with the American establishment, and, when insisted upon, prioritise the latter’s interests even over their own economic ones.
Developing countries like India must realise that they do not have the kind of leverage that the US or even the European Union (EU) have over global data giants, and will never have it, whatever be their boasts. A specific privacy shield arrangement with the US, for instance, ensures special protection just to EU data in the US. All data collected in India and transported abroad (data laws being nearly non-existent), on the other hand, remain largely out of our control or influence.
As this data gets converted into digitally-intelligent services in all sectors – from transport, commerce and tourism, to education and health, to agriculture and manufacturing, we are getting structurally sucked into foreign-controlled digital value chains from which any attempts to escape may soon become too difficult and costly. At that stage, whether they influence and control our elections, or economics, or culture, or internal and external security, manoeuvring space for resistance will be limited. All these data-based controls need to be seen as of one kind, and common strategies urgently devised for India to remain free – free not just in the much-vaunted “consumer choice” sense, which is mostly the Trojan Horse, but also free collectively, as a nation and a community.
It may sound rhetorical but such is the vastness and depth of new global digital controls that digital freedom from them is becoming close to being as important as freedom from physical and legal controls was in the middle of the 20th century.
Political response needed
First of all, we need to recognise the ignored collective aspects of data, and the potential of collective damage or gains from it, which the CA issue most clearly demonstrates – and focus on the related concepts of collective (not just personal) data protection and collective data rights and ownership. The current exercise by the Srikrishna Committee on data protection seems centered entirely on personal data rights, which is insufficient.
Considering it of strategic value, India is currently devising regulation for digital geospatial data, putting many public interest checks on its various uses, including it being taken abroad. The problem is, even from a security point of view, geodata is perhaps no longer the most strategic. Social data of various kinds and sectors may be of greater strategic value. Advanced militaries like in the US, Russia and China know this and are investing in large-scale informational warfare and insurgency projects. Evidently, all or much of Indian social data, in various sectors, including even granular data of consumer behaviour (which provides much detailed psychometric information with cross-sectoral application) need some protections, although of varying kinds taking into account legitimate economic and global integration issues.
As with geospatial information, all critical data and digital intelligence about various sectors must be designated as collective national assets, and the collective rights to them instituted. This does not mean that all such data will necessarily be prevented from being taken abroad, or being used by foreign companies. It basically means an enabling cover of jurisprudence and political economy being thrown over such data, which ensures assertion of collective rights to it, and, where needed, the corresponding laws and regulation.
Platform companies such as FB, Amazon and Uber are key sites of data collection and expropriation, and its conversion into digital intelligence (to influence elections, or whatever else they wish to do). They form the intelligence infrastructures of the sectors concerned, acting like their “brains”. Such platform companies, when exceeding certain data sizes, need to be closely regulated like utility companies.
Within such a cross-cutting framework of data laws, regulation and policies, specific sectors need their own regulation. In the case of election manipulation, for instance, rather than just giving notice to CA to explain matters, it will be much more appropriate to route the current outrage to undertaking a thorough assessment of the role of digital data in elections over the last few years in India, and presenting it to the nation.
Forget CA and FB, an extensive data market with data brokers exists in India as everywhere else, and almost all important data of Indians can be bought in this market. Even in the case of CA and the US elections, apparently only a seventh of the budget that CA spent on acquiring personal data was used for FB data that is currently under micro-examination.
Where was the remaining 85% of the money spent? CA’s Chief Executive Officer has claimed that it had “profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America – 220 million people” which is considerably more that the 50 million profiles being reported as harvested from FB in the current controversy.
Compulsory reporting
Is the Indian Government willing to come up with a white paper on such extensive data markets that also exist in India? The US is considering legislation for compulsory reporting of all social media-related spendings by political agencies, which is also a good area for India to explore.
A data-based digital society and economy are a completely new reality. The question is, are we as a nation ready to develop the needed political response to it? The biggest roadblock in this necessary direction is the same upper middle-class that is currently outraged on the CA issue, but resists due regulation of the digital sector because it threatens its hyper consumptive culture and runs counter to its anti-political biases. It still wants to savour for some more time the utopian dream that the Internet finally delivers them of governments.
Parminder Jeet Singh is with the NGO, IT for Change (Courtesy: The Hindu)