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Senseless Social Media Regulations May Trigger Unintended Consequences


Think of a country starting with the letter ‘U’? Chances are that the first name that popped up in your mind was that of Uganda. Famous for its pristine natural beauty[1] this landlocked African nation has been ravaged by chronic political instability and erratic economic management. A struggling Ugandan economy was the reason to inspire millions of its resident citizens to go online in an attempt to bypass its ailing telecom infrastructure and be at par with the rest of the world. For millions of Ugandans, social media apps like Facebook & Twitter were the only ways to do business, communicate with each other, call for social support, get the latest news, and even call for emergency services. With a less than formal banking infrastructure, the people also had to rely on mobile payments to send or receive money. However, in an attempt to curb ‘gossip’ against his rule, in July 2018 President Museveni imposed a 5% tax on mobile money transfers and a 200 Ugandan Shillings (or Rs 4) per-day levy on social media usage, in effect suspending all websites and blocking all apps unless the user raked up this fee. Officials claimed that this would increase revenue. But, within three months of implementation of this levy millions opted out of subscriptions and overall internet usage fell by 25 percent. Subsequently, the value of mobile money fell by billions of dollars[2]. The levy caused a per-connection increase in the cost of only 1% for the rich but added a burden of as much as 10% for the poor[3]. One GB of data wiped out almost 40% of their average monthly household income. This regulatory tax on social media not only had adverse effects on revenue but disruptive cascading effects on social communications, employment, and some studies estimated that it hit Uganda’s economy by as much as 3% of its GDP. In an attempt to tame ‘idle talk’ online and raise tax revenue, little did President Museveni realize that his senseless regulation would lead to devastating unintended consequences for the Ugandan economy.


Such is the crossroads at which the Indian government stands. Whereas the efforts and intention to create a regulatory framework around our social ecosystem are praiseworthy the approach needs to be more nuanced rather than a mere egoistic scuffle. Formulating social media regulations is like threading a very fine needle with a very fine eye wand that too with a very thin thread, to begin with. If the regulations are not carefully crafted it may trigger unintended consequences. To define this scientifically[4]

“The Law of Unintended Consequences occurs when an impulsive or emotional decision is made that unintentionally creates more problems than it solves.”


Behavioral scientists refer to this law in situations where the intended fixes to a problem have only served to cause more severe problems. Usually, these quick-fix decisions are highly impulsive and emotional. Whereas policymakers may congregate in closed rooms to discuss possible regulations, the reasons that we suffer from the Law of Unintended Consequences are more psychological in nature, namely –

  • Firstly, we are biased towards fixing urgent threats that we see and think will have immediate impact instead of analyzing the long-term impacts e.g. we want to fix the unyielding or un-complying attitude of the Big Tech companies instead of focusing on more pressing issues like curbing the spread of misinformation or rise of fake news on their social media platforms.

  • Secondly, we are lousy at analyzing second-order or third-order effects that could occur based on our decisions today. For example, we want to coerce the Big Tech companies to create grievance cells (rightfully so!) to catch hold of someone for accountability however little do we focus on the second-order effect of content regulations to curb the proliferation of hate speech on the platforms. The volume of vitriol that is present on these platforms has the potential to tip not only governments in elections but also to topple whole economies.

  • Thirdly, it’s extremely cumbersome to fathom the compounding effects that can occur out of the consequences of those decisions. For example, while we ideally desire that the Big Tech companies become more transparent on sharing information on tracing the origin of potential messages, how would that affect user’s privacy? In 2018 when a team of daring Romanian journalists published a story with incriminating evidence exposing a Romanian official, the Romanian Data Protection Authority instead grabbed these journalists and charged them with violation of data protection laws. They threatened to impose a 20-million-euro fine on them to reveal the identity of their source. What impacts will the privacy policies have on the public’s right to know? What effect will they have on an individual’s privacy? how will our approach to free speech affect data protection?


Today the policymakers are faced with a fork-in-the-road situation i.e. whether their regulatory efforts to guardrail our social ecosystem will foster the freedom to express or further intensify hate, nurture the spread of genuine information or proliferate misinformation, give a level-playing ground for new entrants or lead to further monopolization of the Big Tech, enhance social inclusion or deepen polarization, uphold the very foundations of democracy or transition into an autocracy. While these forces will always be in tension with each other our legislative efforts today cannot undermine or overlook the massively beneficial impact these social media platforms have had on the fabric of our society.


Charting the technological future is highly complex, highly nuanced, and obviously, since it is highly technical we need technical experts to lead the way[5]. The regulations need to act as guardrails to address the larger issues of data portability and interoperability[6], privacy and data protection, free speech, and election integrity. When social technology gets deeply entrenched in our lives to degenerate into an environment of online hate, terrorism, loss of privacy, misuse of our freedom of speech, we know that it’s time to have some sensible regulations in place to safeguard our society. However, we must take into stride that even though social platforms have a role to play in this, they aren’t solely responsible for these issues. We too are a part of that equation. Having said that the scale of the problem is too huge for merely a few policymakers to address alone. To progressively move forward the policymakers, social media platforms and data scientists will have to come together in order to build a healthier ecosystem. Merely adopting a one-sided Big Daddy approach may seem like the right thing to do as of now but it can backfire in the future resulting in unintended outcomes that we were trying to avoid in the first place.


P.S. Some food for thought - The larger debate!

  1. As avid users while we are up-in-arms against violation of privacy norms but have we ever bothered to read the privacy policies of the social media services we have subscribed to?

  2. What effect will free speech have on data protection? What effect will privacy have on elections?

  3. What will our legislative efforts have on the startup ecosystem? Will they foster innovation or create entry barriers for entrepreneurs?

  4. As users do we want a digital ecosystem dominated by ‘likes’ and ‘followers’?

  5. Where do the limits of free speech end and hate begin? Should the platforms decide the limits or government committees? or do we?

  6. If the need arises, or we lose trust in the platform, then should we users have the option to simply migrate our entire data and social network from one platform to another or not?

  7. How can we use social technologies in a fashion that realizes their true potential? How can we regulate social technologies in a fashion that realizes their true potential?

  8. How can we regulate so that it doesn’t lead to a possible weaponization of these technologies by foreign or domestic powers?

  9. How can policymakers, social media platforms, and users collaborate to create a better and healthier social ecosystem?

 




References & Footnotes: [1] Did you know this about Uganda? * One of the best hikes in the world as per National Geographic is located here in Uganda at the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains. * The largest volcanic caldera in the world is located here in Uganda at Mount Elgon. * The largest lake in Africa is located here i.e. Lake Victoria and this is the primary water source of the mighty Nile river. [2] Refer to article ‘Millions of Ugandans quit internet services as social media tax takes effect' from The Guardian. Link - https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/feb/27/millions-of-ugandans-quit-internet-after-introduction-of-social-media-tax-free-speech [3] As per The Alliance for Affordable Internet [4] Reference & Definition borrowed from ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ on Mark Manson’s blog – markmanson.net [5] Reference from The Hype Machine by Sinan Aral, under the section of A National Commission for Technology and Democracy [6] Simply put data portability means you can take your social data and network and migrate to any other social platform if need be. The problem is also related to interoperability meaning messages from one network can easily be rerouted to another network, if need be. This is the biggest problem as this means giving access to a level-playing field on which different social media services can fairly compete for customers hence threatening the competitive advantage of Big Tech companies.

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