September 19, 2021

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A digital social contract for social media – need of the hour

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Image source: https://blog.ipleaders.in/doctrine-of-privity-of-contract/

This article has been written by Manasi Sheth pursuing a Diploma in Advanced Contract Drafting, Negotiation, and Dispute Resolution from LawSikho.

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“The Social Order is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights. Nevertheless, this right does not come from nature, and therefore must be founded on conventions.”  -Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract.

The Social Contract has been well-defined overages in many different ways. In the simplest of terms, it could be described as an implied agreement between people and the society they live in. On the basis of this agreement, people give up certain of their rights and freedom in exchange for rules, common practices, and public services.

India is going through a time of significant change. Economic, urbanization, and technological growth: while these changes bring new opportunities into the society, too many changes at the same time can be quite unsettling for the people. The last decade has seen a global rise in populist politics fuelled by insecurity in many countries. Many blame it on globalization and nationalism, and though sure they may be a part of the explanation, we could also argue that they are most certainly secondary issues. I think the fundamental explanation truly lies in the pressures on our social contracts – the balance between the rights and obligations of citizens. Many people are angry and confused because they think they are not benefitting from the new developments and that such developments could come at the risk of them being left behind.

As we move towards a digitalized era, digital technology is being used to address societal issues at large as it affects society. As a social contract is all about the contract of the people with the society, it may be safe to say it is time to establish a social contract in the digital format as well. So, through this article, let us delve a little further into why it is high time that we should start developing digital social contracts for social media.

The digital version of a social contract is basically how people react and relate to each other in the digital world. Social media has become the way people communicate with each other. Remember a time when people used to actually call each other personally to wish them a happy birthday or to congratulate them on something but these days you just send a message through either WhatsApp or maybe Facebook messenger or Instagram DM. 

The digital age is basically based on how you connect with people on social media. If you’re not connected to people through social media, you might as well not exist. How you present yourself on social media matters. A society grows further when the people living in it contribute towards it. Just like how businesses operate through social media when we as people contribute to it when we buy stuff via digital methods. Digital Media also changed the way businesses operate in today’s time. It does not have to be restricted to an office room. It has re-organized the way businesses operate and how they don’t have to follow the old norms. For instance, Let’s say you want to open a store but don’t have enough resources to maybe rent a space, or maybe pay utility bills? Easy, so you can open a store on social media sites without too much investment, and voila! You are an entrepreneur.

Social media is one of the easiest ways in which brands or companies can improve on their transparency, as it is commonly known once you present yourself on social media you can never hide or disappear. So, if a company or brand is just starting out one of the easiest ways it can make its presence known is by making itself prominently visible on social media. Social media marketing channels have become the best platform for such connection where the perfect audience is targeted for the same. People connect with people rather than brands hence, the brands have started teaming up with influencers. People connect with their influencers and influencers promote the brands they have teamed up with and that is just how they start turning into people’s brands. Well, that’s transparency for you but how authentic is it? Well, that just depends on how much people trust people. Too confusing? Let’s make it easier to understand. Remember the posts by influencers we see on social media promoting certain brands? When we see our favorite influencers promoting certain brands we indirectly start trusting the brand too not knowing that they are just paid to promote it. Disclaimers that state, “This is a paid post” would help us take one step closer to transparency.

Data privacy on social media

Well, privacy on social media is a myth. Not sure how? Let’s take Google search for example, how many of us actually read the Terms & Conditions before clicking on the Accept tab? Not most of us for sure. As it happens the search is not free of cost as it advertises it is a money-making app where we are not directly paying any money for the search engine but we basically give up our privacy data, the Google algorithm makes us predictable, and hence those creepy advertisements selling the products/services that creep up while using different apps for which we were searching a while ago.

After Facebook’s latest privacy data fiasco, more governments are now thinking about regulations to protect data and digital regulations. Many technology choices and social media business models have an impact on our society, like big data on privacy or using artificial intelligence on jobs. Technology has become the main highlight in our world like the agricultural sector is about using technology to grow crops, the healthcare industry is about using technology to make people live longer and healthier, and the financial industry is about using technology to reduce the gap between social and economic differences. Technology is viewed as a way to the betterment of society.

Competition on social media

Well, since the reach through social media has such a great scope obviously there will be a high level of competition, brands will be as simple as open shop digitally which well speaks well in numbers because it can cut quite a few high costs. Interesting right? Have a startup idea? Open a shop on social media, market it there, sell it there. Even being an influencer has become a business on social media. But unfortunately, since it is easy setting up a business online. There is a high scale of competition too and then it really makes survival the fittest. On one hand, if your product/service is good and you have fewer funds it is a nice way to start up but on the other hand even well-known brands/services set up business on the internet and can easily sustain competition and drive out their competitors., SEO, Wordpress Support & Insurance, Mortgage, Loans, Legal, Etc Blogs

At a press conference, Electronics and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the basic essence of ‘The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021’ is a “soft-touch oversight” mechanism to deal with issues such as the persistent spread of fake news, abuse of these platforms to share morphed images of women and contents related to revenge porn or to settle corporate rivalries.

New Regulations have been developed by the Government to curb the misuse of social media but it would also require the likes of Facebook, Twitter to take quicker actions on their parts. However good the new regulations are, they might also be viewed by people as undermining principles of open and accessible internet and also violate people’s right to privacy and free speech. 

“Social media is welcome to do business in India…they have got good business and have also empowered ordinary Indians. But it is very important that crores of social media users be given a proper forum for the resolution of their grievances in a time-bound manner against the abuse and misuse of social media,” Mr. Prasad said.

In the light of recent events, we can see that the Indian Government was at loggerheads with WhatsApp over data intrusion. Where the government wanted the social media app owners to keep a trace of people’s one-to-one private conversations, the Facebook-owned app refused to do so as it undermines the private nature of the platform.

To conclude, in my opinion, I do feel the need to insert that though the government is trying at their level best efforts, what we do need is a digital social contract rather than these stringent changes in the regulations because as simple as it to say that, people do not like it when their privacy is infringed at this level though it is only trying to curb disinformation, fake businesses, etc A sensible digitized social contract could be the answer to this. It could help rebalance the power held between the internet industry, the government, and the people. For that to happen it would be required to consist of the three essential elements which are 

  1. Transparency: Like the bill introduced in the Senate called the ‘Honest Ads Act’ in the United States imposes requirements such as clear disclaimers, demarcating ads related to politics, full disclosure regarding who makes the payments for the advertisements. A bill that promotes such a level of transparency could go a long way in protecting the consumers of such ads.
  2. Privacy: Has long been considered a fundamental right in society but not many countries are able to provide it to their citizens. The internet companies need to collect private personalized data for efficient service and effectively compete with giant competitors like China but there also needs to be a balance between what data can likely be shared and what not. Otherwise, the digital thieves might keep on making fake favorable promises on intending to follow through with them.
  3. Competition: Companies like Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram dominate the social media market. Facebook actually owns both WhatsApp and Instagram, so it might be safe to say that both Google and Facebook dominate that particular market. Both these giants enter into deals on a regular basis where they share information, data, and details with each other and often drive their competitors off of the game. 
  1. https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/articles/a-new-social-contract-for-the-digital-age/.
  2. https://medium.com/@stephen.leatherdale/social-media-and-the-social-contract-cab722ed5021.
  3. https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/why-we-need-a-digital-social-contract/.
  4. https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/why-india-needs-a-new-social-contract/story-DiAttglA4Zy0T2OyWqImDM.html.
  5. https://hbr.org/2019/03/a-new-digital-social-contract-is-coming-for-silicon-valley.
  6. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/govt-announces-new-social-media-rules/article33931290.ece.

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