[Wrote this as a comment on IT rules in response to Moneycontrol's query for Their ExpertEye column, but became a but a bit lengthy than needed. The published version quotes from this is here]

Internet is made by technical communities. Internet and its distributed nature enabled new kind of communities and technologies for communication and collaboration. The growth of BigTech platforms platformised many of these communities within their walled garden, while there are free and open-source technologies and open standards are available for both communication and cooperation via the internet.  Then came the regulators and regulatory designs for governing the space.  But this governing intent sometimes misses the people and their technology sovereignty as a prime element in a rush to address BigTech and Platforms. This is the short story of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting last month.

Anyone can start a website using self-hosted WordPress without a mandatory requirement for social media presence. There are similar kinds of free and opensource technologies available for communication and collaboration outside BigTech platforms.  There are running your server solutions and run federated technology solutions that allow you to communicate across the internet without a single server dependency, powered with open standards. Anyone can run these technology platforms on their servers and allow their peers to create an account and communicate with them. There are WhatsApp alternatives like Matrix, Twitter alternatives like Mastodon, Facebook alternatives like Diaspora, Youtube alternatives like PeerTube, Instagram alternatives like Pixelfeed in this federated technology space, usually known as fediverse. The new provisions for platform control attack this space of tech sovereignty of individuals running these services.

In messaging space, many of these solutions support public-key cryptography and a good set of encryption algorithms to ensure the technology platform having zero knowledge about either the content or the encryption keys. It is not just about Signal or WhatsApp, there are at least 30+ messaging applications supporting encryption and made as Free and Opensource solutions. The Traceability or the Originator Requirement in Rule 4(2) demands messaging platforms to identify “first originator” or “first originator” in India.  This demands platforms to track the location, associate user information with the content metadata and maintain a chain of communication, compromising the privacy of communication. The BigTech's who have a business focus may comply with undermining privacy and the right to free speech, But no technology communities won't update their tech stack that will severely impact the sanctity of end-to-end encrypted communications. The result of this will be just weaker encryption, weaker privacy and fewer choices for communication for Indians.

The Automated Filtering requirement (Rule 4(4)) for Significant Social Media Intermediaries for proactively identifying and notice users is a dangerous development. It is the first time blanket permission for using blackbox AI or algorithms to check and filter content, even though it is mandated.  We need to understand India has many languages and AI in these languages does not even understand words, their forms or contexts. A blanket automated provision, without any oversight on algorithms and AI models, results in threatening free speech, while platforms can escape blaming nascent AI and bugs in the automated filtering system.

Indian Regulators need to consider residents and internet communities and their technology sovereignty more actively in its user or data governance policies. The BigTech/ Platform centred policymaking is compromising Information self-determination and autonomy of the user and threatening their privacy and freedom of speech.  

Anivar Aravind is a Public Interest Technologist and Software Engineer based in Bangalore, India.

[Image Credits: Tobias Buckdahn ( CC BY-SA 4.0)via Wikimedia Commons]