2021 : Digital Transparency informs public debate

tl;dr

Throughout 2021, we have tried to raise awareness around the various policies and projects that the Central and State government have developed and introduced. By utilising the Right to Information Act, 2005 as well as the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (‘IT Rules 2021’), we have tried to bring transparency & accountability in the working of every public authority and significant social media intermediary. These transparency efforts are towards ensuring that the gap between the public and public policy can be bridged and more people get to engage in processes that set the digital frameworks that govern their present and future.

The Digital Transparency Initiative

The RTI Act has helped us tremendously this year in uncovering important details about various actions taken by the Central and State governments throughout the year. It has led to media reporting, informed commentary and better public feedback. Such good faith engagement helps evidence based policy making, increases the justification and reasoning for public policy processes. We are providing a breakdown in terms of numbers below.

Type of Application No. of Applications filed in 2021
Right to Information Requests 334
First Appeals 25
Second Appeals 11

Some highlights of the information we unearthed can be accessed below:

1: [Revealed] Jaipur Internet Shutdown Orders: Cut, Copy, Paste! (link)

Internet shutdowns were imposed in Rajasthan to prevent cheating in exams. So, we filed Right to Information applications to determine the extent of the Rajasthan government’s compliance with directions in Anuradha Bhasin.

2: [Revealed] Udaipur Internet Shutdown Orders: Cut, Copy, Paste! (link)

Internet shutdowns were imposed in Rajasthan to prevent cheating in exams. So, we filed Right to Information applications to determine the extent of compliance with directions in Anuradha Bhasin. We found that the office of the Udaipur Divisional Commissioner has issued 26 internet shutdown orders, most of which are similar!

3: The case of the missing consultation response: Missing submissions to the Agristack consultations (link)

Responses to our RTIs indicate that our submissions, as well as those from other organisations, on the Agristack consultation paper were not received. Together with the All India Kisan Sabha, we wrote to the Agristack Working Group and the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare, re-submitting our suggestions and asking why they were not received in the first place.

4: Government endorses the use of facial recognition for “touchless” vaccination process (link)

News about the Government deploying facial recognition facilities at vaccination centres for the purposes of authentication has emerged as a cause of worry. We filed an RTI application with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) on May 18, 2021 to understand more about the process and to verify the authenticity of such reports. In their reply to our RTI application dated June 24, 2021 the Ministry confirmed the use of facial recognition for verification of beneficiaries of the COVID-19 vaccines but failed to provide any guidelines or SOP that clearly delineates the technical and implementation details of facial recognition technology (FRT) for COVID-19 vaccine verification.

5: Revealed: RTI Request uncovers MeitY letters to Twitter asking to remove the ‘manipulated media’ tag (link)

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had issued a letter to Twitter asking it to remove a ‘Manipulated Media’ tag that was affixed on certain tweets of prominent political leaders carrying an alleged ‘toolkit’. We filed RTIs to find out what was stated in the letter, and today (June 17, 2021) we were provided copies of two letters from MeitY to Twitter dated May 21 and 25, 2021. The letters do not cite any provision of law, but have asked Twitter to refrain from implementing its policy and process of affixing the ‘Manipulated Media’ tag on tweets.

6: Revealed: Ministry of Agriculture’s MOU with Microsoft on the Agristack. Urgent need for transparency and consultation! (link)

On 19th May, 2021, in response to an RTI query by us, the Ministry of Agriculture provided us a Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Agriculture and Microsoft, and a document titled “Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for verifying Farmer’s Database (100 Villages)”. The MoU appears to propose that farmer’s data will be used to authenticate their identity for the receipt of entitlements under agricultural schemes. Further, the MoU speaks of a data sharing agreement, wherein the Agriculture Ministry will share farmers’ data with Microsoft. While the SOP contains guidelines for correcting gaps and errors in land records, concerns on data protection, exclusion to entitlements and algorithmic governance emerge.

7: Tandav is a Case Study for OTT censorship under the IT Rules, 2021 (link)

We accessed, through RTI requests, the complaints sent from all across India to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Amazon Prime Show, "Tandav". This was potentially a trigger for the regulation of OTT platforms under the undemocratic and unconstitutional IT Rules, 2021. We considered these complaints against these rules to show how it provides a heckler's veto and will lead to censorship of speech which is otherwise legal.

In addition to these specific explainers on substantial responses received, we also received responses on applications filed under IFF’s #ProjectPanoptic to unearth information about the development and deployment of facial recognition system projects across the country.

Under our digital transparency vertical, we publish monthly transparency reports which provide an overview of our efforts throughout the month. In an effort to make the reports more nuanced, we have also started including a brief analysis of all substantial responses received that month as well as any mention in the media of our transparency work. You can access all reports for 2021 here.  

Transparency for Significant Social Media Intermediaries

Under Rule 4(1)(d) of the IT Rules, 2021, social media platforms are required to publish monthly compliance reports. We have analysed these compliance reports for the months of May, June, July, August, and September (all can be found here). Some of the highlights from our analysis are encapsulated below:

  1. Algorithms for proactive takedown: SSMIs have been opaque about the process/algorithms followed by them for proactive takedown of content. While WhatsApp has made an attempt to explain how it proactively takes down content by releasing a white paper discussing its abuse detection process in detail and disclosing how they use machine learning, the lack of human intervention in terms of monitoring the kind of content that is taken down is problematic.
  2. Metrics used for proactive takedown by Facebook: As per their combined reports, Facebook and Instagram adopt the metrics of (i) ‘content actioned’ which measures the number of pieces of content (such as posts, photos, videos or comments) that they take action on for going against their standards and guidelines, (ii) proactive rate which refers to the percentage of ‘content actioned’ that they detected proactively before any user reported for the same. The metric is problematic because the proactive rate only gives a percentage of that content on which action was taken, and excludes all content on Facebook (which may otherwise be an area of concern) which may not have been detected proactively.
  3. Lack of consistency: There is a lack of consistency in how much detail SSMIs provide in their compliance reports. Each SSMI has also adopted its own format, and provided different policy areas or issues on which it takes down content. For example, the IT Rules were floated following a call for attention for “misuse of social media platforms and spreading of fake news”, but there seems to be no data disclosure on content takedown for fake news by any SSMI other than Twitter; Google and WhatsApp have not segregated the proactive action taken into different kinds of issues, but have provided the total number of proactive actions taken by them.
  4. No disclosure of government removal requests: Even though compliance with the IT Rules does not mandate disclosure of how many content removals were ordered by the government, in order to truly advance transparency in the digital life of Indians, it is imperative that SSMIs disclose, in their compliance reports, issue-wise government requests for content removal on their platforms.
  5. Excessive Copyright takedowns: In response to user grievances, Google (including YouTube) has been taking down 98-99.9% of its content for reasons of copyright and trademark infringement.

We believe that given the growth in demand for greater due process and transparency in content moderation, the Santa Clara Principles On Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation, which have recently been updated to version 2.0 must be used as a basis for reporting by the SSMIs. The first principle suggests how data can be segregated by category of rule violated, by format of content at issue (e.g., text, audio, image, video, live stream), by source of flag (e.g., governments, trusted flaggers, users, different types of automated detection) and by locations of flaggers and impacted users (where apparent). The first principle along with the other operational principles - notice and appeal - incorporated therein could be a starting point for the government to provide for a format in which the SSMIs are required to furnish information.

This approach would enable the government to collect and analyse India-specific data which would further enable well-rounded regulation. Do you have suggestions on what we can do better? Reach out to us by filling in this form and letting us know what we should focus towards in 2022, or let us know how we can make our existing work more effective.