October 11, 2021The Intersectioninformation age

The coming regulation of social media is an opportunity for India

India's competitive advantage in the tech economy has always been high quality human capital at scale. The challenge now is to create millions of people who can exercise good judgement in addition to writing great code.

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

China gives us an estimate of how many people you need to effectively monitor content on the internet. The Great Firewall employs over 100,000 people to prevent around a billion Chinese internet users from accessible content Beijing considers undesirable. That is one censor for every 10,000 users. In contrast, according to Frances Haugen, a whistleblower who released internal company documents to the media recently, Facebook has around 40,000 employees keeping an eye on content posted by its 2.5 billion users around the world, or a ratio of roughly 1:70,000. Thus the company would need to employ seven times as many people to match the Beijing standard. In fact, if we account for the fact that Facebook would need to monitor conversations in over a 100 languages, it might need as many as half a million censors.

I’m being provocative here, but the term censor” accurately captures what content oversight teams do.

Sure, artificial intelligence can perhaps reduce the headcount requirements, especially if clever humans don’t stay a step ahead of censorship rules as they generally have throughout history. Even so, if social media networks come to be mandated to monitor user content as part of the ongoing scrutiny by the world’s governments, the world will need millions of censors in the coming years. They will be called content oversight officers, online safety managers, country compliance executives, forum moderators and suchlike, but the job scope will essentially be to prevent certain types of content from spreading on their networks.

I got the Milton quote from Freeman Dyson’s excellent article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on on how free enquiry offers the best protection for society.

There is one problem, though: Good censors are hard to find. In a speech to parliament in 1644 opposing the censorship of books the poet John Milton said He who is made judge to sit upon the birth or death of books…had need to be a man above the common measure, both studious, learned, and judicious. If he be of such worth as behooves him, there cannot be a more tedious and unpleasing journey-work, a greater loss of time levied upon his head, than to be made the perpetual reader of unchosen books and pamphlets…we may easily foresee what kind of licensers we are to expect hereafter, either ignorant, imperious, and remiss, or basely pecuniary.” In other words, good censorship demands wise and learned people, but ends up attracting only the wrong sort. This trouble won’t trouble authoritarian governments too much, but social media networks concerned about free speech are bound to hit the HR crunch pretty soon.

The demand for a person above the common measure, both studious, learned, and judicious” is not restricted to just content moderators in social media companies. Given how deeply and profoundly the tech industry already impacts society, everyone from engineers and developers to CEOs and investors will need to have a better understanding of a range of disciplines in the social sciences. Facebook’s current troubles demonstrate how difficult it is to retrofit social responsibility and ethical considerations on business models and corporate cultures that were designed with different goals. If you are building a startup today, you are better off paying less attention to cynical industry veterans who’ll tell you to ignore the idealistic stuff and chase the money. The next few years will see legislation in several important countries that will hold tech companies accountable for social ills caused by the use of their products.

Negative and harmful content is relatively more contagious, and this phenomenon is amorally exploited by growth-seeking business models to the detriment of society. Haugen’s testimony to the US Congress last week contained nothing we didn’t already know, but it is nevertheless an important milestone in the growing political realisation that the negative social consequences of social media have become too serious to ignore. If lawmakers in the United States knew what to do about it they would perhaps have done it. Unfortunately they do not, yet. In the meantime, expect piecemeal legislation over specific issues flagged by whistleblowers and activists, tempered by the tech industry and its lobbyists.

Social media in its current form is an existential threat to civilisation. Both business models and how we use the internet must change. The leadership must come from the tech industry.

The emerging new balance between public interest, tech industry business models and online behavior is an opportunity for India’s tech industry and its people. In addition to technical skills, an aspiring tech entrepreneur or employee will need to be broadly educated and capable of making value judgements. Let’s be honest: very little in our education system prepares us for this. Our smartest people can solve calculus problems but are unlikely to know much about the ideas of Bentham or the Bhagavad Gita. Encouraging new liberal arts universities and adding social science subjects into engineering and science curriculums at the undergraduate level is part of the answer.

Takshashila’s Tech & Policy programme was designed to enable entrepreneurs, software developers & investors to do social responsible tech

I am also optimistic that market forces will drive companies and individuals to invest in training in ethics, responsible strategy and social impact analysis. (Full disclosure:  I teach courses on these subjects at the Takshashila Institution). India’s competitive advantage in the tech economy has always been high quality human capital at scale. The challenge now is to create millions of people who can exercise good judgement in addition to writing great code.

(There are many more The Intersection columns here)

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