Chapter One: World’s Longest Internet Shutdown in any Democracy

Hello! Welcome to TypeRight, a conversation hub, or as we call it in some parts of India, a nukkad for chatter about all things digital. We at the Digital Empowerment Foundation have been having these conversations not only in fancy global conferences and webinars but also in remote villages across India. On TypeRight while we will discuss the chief newsy developments of the week, we will also bring to you non-newsy stories about digital, from our adventures across India-we travel a lot.

We travelled a lot even during the lockdown and came back with thousands of stories, like this one:

But first, the newsy stuff.

Any conversation about India and digital must begin with reference to Jammu and Kashmir, which saw the longest internet shutdown in a democracy. Earlier this month, the ban on 4g services has been extended once again in all districts except Udhampur and Ganderbal. Covid-19. Needless to say, the ban on fast internet makes any meaningful trade or education near impossible. Those in J&K are therefore suffering a double jeopardy- of the pandemic and then on top of that the internet shutdown.

Speaking of bans, in another part of the world, President Donald Trump got banned from a several websites including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube after he incited a mob to attack the Capitol. As you can expect, the ban has been met with both support and also opposition. The dividing line however isn't just between those who support and oppose Trump. Opposition to the ban has come from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said that the ban went against freedom of speech.

Sample this quote from a piece by Kevin Roose who is a technology columnist with the New York Times:

"We understand the desire to permanently suspend him now,” Kate Ruane, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a statement on Friday. “But it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions — especially when political realities make those decisions easier.

Stripped to bare technicalities, Ruane is echoing an argument about the evils of the kind of monopoly 'Big Tech' has established. A concern which resonates with many policy experts and lawmakers across the world who believe that at least Facebook ought to be 'broken' down.

A third kind of criticism has come from those who believe that while the ban is the right thing to do, it is too little, too late. Some also believe that given the change in administration, the ban has come only after the companies in question had nothing to lose by banning Trump.

Finally, there is the rather legitimate charge of duplicity. In Myanmar and Sri Lanka for instance, Facebook has admitted responsibility for large scale violence and yet there have been no drastic changes. In India, Kapil Mishra, a legislator named by Mark Zuckerberg as guilty of inciting violence continues to remain on the website.

Interestingly, this report says misinformation reduced drastically after Trump was banned.

There is no news of Trump being banned from another app of mass instruction- Whatsapp. In India however, Whatsapp has been in the news and on a few days-quite literally on the front page.

Shortly after Whatsapp told every user in India that they either get ready to give their data to businesses and Facebook or lose their Whatsapp account, millions chose to 'ban' Whatsapp and move to either Telegram or Signal. According to this report:

"Downloads fell by more than 2 million between 5-12 January compared to the previous week, shrinking to 10.6 million. 

This is now less than both Signal and Telegram, which saw 17.8 million and 15.7 million downloads respectively during the same time period, data from app analytics firm Sensor Tower revealed."

Whatsapp went into overdrive to convince Indians that they were being misled- via front page advertisements in all leading newspapers. Once again, there are echoes of digital colonialism here also- Whatsapp's policies on data sharing remain unchanged insofar as Europe is concerned.

The exodus was so large that Signal crashed for several hours and the entire event resulted in Whatsapp finally deciding to 'delay' the change in policy. Meanwhile, a petition has been filed before the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the proposed changes.

Another petition was filed before the Delhi High Court challenging Whatsapp's new policies and the court's observation was on the lines of- if you don't like the app, don't use it. It isn't as simple as this though. Closely tied to the matter are issues of competition law. In layperson speak, an enterprise like Whatsapp has established a dominance over the 'relevant market', a monopoly where not only much of private business but also government services have begun to operate.

Even otherwise there are laws which prohibit exploitative and unconscionable clauses in contracts. The matter therefore isn't as simple as not using something if one doesn't like it.

Just as we write this, the Economic Times reports that the Indian government has asked Whatsapp to take back its policy. The full story is here

Enough serious talk, let's take a Netflix break. Our research officer Tarun Pratap is keen to demonstrate to the world that DEF is not all work and no play and has a review of a total masala movie for you:

The Social Dilemma – 2020 – 95 Minutes – Available on Netflix

The Social Dilemma is an American docudrama movie directed by Emmy Award winning director Jeff Orlowski. The movie talks about the rising impact of the social media applications on human lives. The narrative of the movie follows interviews of former employees of social media organizations like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc and a parallel dramatized version of a story of a middle class family with teenage children going through the negative impact of social media.

The overarching theme of the documentary focuses on the point that while the invention of social media was not inherently for bad purposes but the business model relies far more on propaganda and negative emotions and hence it has become an easy tool for those things to be spread in society. The system of recommendation which works as rabbit hole is a way to keep the users hooked but it builds a wall around a user where she is witnessing only one kind of ideas and as the belief grows stronger in those ideas, it leads to polarization in the society since the user tends to wonder why other people are not able to see what is easily visible to her all the time.

The movie may act as eye opener for a number of people. It invariably makes you wonder about your social media choices and asks for introspection. The documentary gets you on the edge and simplifies the process of Artificial intelligence through fictional example of one family and one person at a time from that family and focus of AI on them through the metaphorical and literal surveillance. The documentary talks about the aspect of money making model of social media companies. It simply tells you that if you are not paying for a product or service, it is just because you are the product or service being sold and bought by social media companies to political organizations and market.


Asheef Iqubal, another research associate at DEF went to the largest protest currently anywhere in the world where over 65 farmers have died and wrote about the farmers and their experience with digital and mainstream media. You can read his report on Newslaundry here


We Won!

SoochnaPreneur is a programme of Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and QUALCOMM launched in April 2016 which is designed to serve information services needs of citizen especially at Village, Panchayat and Block levels in each of the 25 administrative development blocks in 6 backward districts in India. It is aimed to create a pool of rural entrepreneurs in order to strengthen and democratise the environment of public schemes information dissemination, services and final entitlement gains for focused groups and beneficiaries.

The project is run by rural youths who have become agents of change by being SoochnaPreneurs (Soochna Sevaks), while the actual beneficiaries are the rural households and individuals who are majorly left out of the public delivery mechanism due to inaccessibility of informatioon. Recently, on January 11, 2021, the World Bank Group and CES announced the winners of the Global Tech Challenge: Solutions for Women, launched at CES 2020.

In the list of winners is the ‘Soochnapreneur’ (Information Entrepreneur) model from India, solution driven by the New Delhi based Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF). The other two winners of the Global Tech Challenge are Bridge for Billions and MicroMentor. For more info about Soochnapreneur- https://soochnapreneur.in/

YAY! Until next week folks. Do write back with feedback- should our posts be longer, shorter, what else would you like to read here? And don't forget our mantra, a talisman of sorts we have- before you do anything on digital, ask yourself does your activity on digital enhance your/someone's dignity or diminishes it?

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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad

TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad, is a weekly conversational bulletin curated through the news and discussions on social media as well as what's happening on the ground. Through the eyes and ears of Digital Empowerment Foundation across rural India and global south, TypeRight aspires to focus on bringing the contextual relevance of digital technologies and developments on the society - both connected and unconnected.
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