What was planned to be mandatory became voluntary, thanks to the intervention by tech giant
NEW DELHI — Prior to the commencement of 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Election Commission of India planned to enforce strict rules to regulate social media that was seen to significantly impact the process and the results.
But before the plan would take off, Facebook successfully lobbied to get it scuttled, making the poll body to eventually keep it to the voluntary code of ethics bereft of any legal consequences upon violation, new internal company documents put out by whistleblower Frances Haugen have revealed.
According to media reports, the tech giant used Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) to bottleneck ECI’s original plan and get what it desired.
ECI was initially gearing up for a strict social media regulation framework at the time of elections.
A spokesperson of the poll body, however, refuted the claims as made in the internal papers. “Political advertisement on electronic media including social media is always prohibited during the silence period. Section 126(1)(b) of R.P. Act 1951 prohibits display of any election matter (including political advertisement) by means of television or similar apparatus (electronic media) during the period of 48 hours ending with the hour fixed for conclusion of poll,” EC spokesperson was quoted by Hindustan Times as saying. “And as per the VCE (voluntary code of ethics), platforms had committed to act upon the violations of Section 126 of R.P. Act, 1951. For this they had created a dedicated reporting mechanism for ECI under the provisions of VCE.”
Months before the polls, in 2018, the ECI set up a committee headed by Election Commissioner Umesh Sinha to come up with a framework for regulating social media platforms during polls.
Hindustan Times said the draft report of the committee suggested “the Commission may issue directions to social media agencies to ensure that political advertisements are not uploaded on their platforms during the prohibited period of 48 hours mentioned in Section 126”.
According to the draft submitted in January 2019, the initial plan was to come up with the regulations that would be enforced throughout the poll period but it was eventually decided to keep it to last 48 hours, also called silence period, before the actual voting begins.
The company circulated an internal memo on 29 May 2019, five days after the poll process ended, detailing measures it employed during the polls including proactive monitoring, taking action on content flagged by the ECI and driving the Voluntary Code of Ethics (VCE) that governed social media platforms.
Titled “India Elections: A Case Study”, the memo also discussed goals such as fighting misinformation and fake news, and the prevention of “any bad regulation or law for social media on election integrity”.
Hindustan Times said multiple people confirmed that Facebook aggressively pushed back against the EC’s plan to require it to disable ads during the silence period. Moreover, the social network was “most vocal and driving things” in meeting between IAMAI and the ECI.
The company was also party to a PIL that was filed in Bombay High Court to enforce campaign silence for social media platforms. “With the help of the Voluntary Code of Ethics and continued engagement with ECI, we were able to avoid an onerous and prescriptive direction from the Bombay High Court,” an internal Facebook memo, according to Hindustan Times, said. The company used VCE was a potent instrument to push against any new binding commitments.
“This [VCE] was a significant development which helped our family of apps to continue working within the existing legal framework without attracting any new election law or attracting bad regulation,” the memo further said.
Sahana Udupa, professor of media anthropology at University of Munich, and a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University, termed VCE as “weak and insufficient”.
ECI wanted to disable all ads and even remove violative content during the silence period which alarmed Facebook and it successfully lobbied and eventually VCE merely said that participants will commit to following transparency in paid political advertising and instituted a mechanism to fast-track the ECI’s action requests.
“We ensured our primary trade body IAMAI was involved to negotiate on behalf of the industry so that no bad recommendation was made. Eventually, we managed to get a text which was in line with intermediary protection for tech platforms,” a Facebook official said in the memo.
In contrast, in the United States, Facebook disabled fresh political ads on its platforms for a seven-day period prior to the elections in 2020.