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  • Writer's pictureNishtha Sehgal

Waking Up to the Challenges of Digital Citizenship

Ever struggled with that tiny "close" button on ads, or encountered the stubborn X that refuses to budge despite your best-clicking efforts (perhaps sometimes even making you contemplate unconventional solutions like a hammer?) 

Or if you're an Instagram user, you might have seen a pop-up asking permission to use your app and website activity for a "better ads experience, that boils down to two choices: dial down personalization with a dark grey "Make ads less personalized" option or embrace it with a vibrant blue "Make ads more personalized" box. 

Or worse yet, you encounter these guilt-tripping pop-ups that make you feel bad for choosing the option that aligns with your preferences. They are so common that there is an entire tumblr page dedicated to such “deceptive designs”.

These are all examples of dark patterns - deceptive and manipulative user interface design choices that trick users into making decisions that benefit the designer or company, rather than the user's best interests. They are meticulously crafted to exploit cognitive biases and capitalize on user behavior. Dark patterns along with government-induced internet shutdowns, web censorship, and surveillance deprive us of our digital liberties. India has shut down the internet more often than any other country in the world.

The 26-second video revealing violence between Hindu Meitei and Christian Kuki-Zo tribes in Manipur faced an 80-day delayed global response due to the Indian government's three-month internet shutdown. This deliberate disruption not only hindered the timely exposure of critical information but also deprived Manipur's 2.2 million people of essential online services. The release of this shocking video has made every government functionary suddenly wake up. Internet shutdowns kill democracy by restricting access to this vital information. Closing off the internet doesn't prevent violence; it merely conceals it and deprives us of awareness. Such shutdowns, increasingly common in India, undermine free speech and the right to information, impede the economy, disproportionately impact marginalized communities, and allow the government to behave in authoritarian ways.

Mr. Prateek Waghre from the Internet Freedom Foundation explained this problem very well, he said, “One way to look at this is as an inverted triangle. So, at the top, you’ve got your companies on one end, you’ve got the government adjacent to it, and you’ve got your civil society somewhere at the bottom. Now, the center of power is usually near the top. It’s not near the citizens. It's normally swaying between or close to the companies and government, and both of them are trying to amass more power for themselves in their way to achieve their aim.” 

So, with both these organizations trying to constantly assert their influence on the internet, where does that leave us and our rights?

And how can we shift the balance of power towards the citizens, ensuring that the interests of individuals and their digital rights take center stage?

Well folks, I got the judicious opportunity to interview Mr. Prateek Waghre, the Executive Director at Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), and got these questions answered. Their goal is to protect and advance digital rights for people in India. They achieve this through a combination of strategic litigation (taking a case to the court to create a solution that benefits everyone), policy and parliamentary engagement, and civic literacy. In other words, they strive to create a balance and bring the power back to where it should be - with the citizens or consumers. 

It is not an easy task because, as explained by Mr. Waghre,

“It’s important that through the course of work, you don’t do something that tips the scale too heavily in one direction. You don’t want the work you do to be a-co-opted by the companies, or you don’t want it to be completely co-opted by the government as well. It is a very interesting balance to try and achieve because our goal is to ultimately amplify the voices of the citizens and ensure that they are heard. You don’t want those to be fed into someone else’s goals or objectives in a way that backfires and harms the citizens. That's the part we always keep a lookout for.”

A major part of the organization’s work, as Mr. Waghre explained, is to undertake civic literacy initiatives to empower individuals to understand and safeguard their digital rights. Here is what he had to say, “The thing with civic literacy for our work is that it cuts across everything that we do. In the sense that every time there is a new bill or a court case that comes out, a lot of our work is done with the intention of ‘how do we explain this to people’ or ‘how do we communicate this to people who may be interested in this issue?’. Now, sometimes this is done through a blog post, with simple words, or often, our team uses memes. They take an issue and see what kind of meme applies to it.”

Certain complexities come with this too. “This task is difficult because many issues carry nuanced details that may be unfamiliar to those not closely following the subject.  So, how do you then draw that balance between, ‘Look, I don’t want to overburden this person, and I also don’t want them to walk away with the wrong information’? We understand how people receive information and the contexts in which they do so, and then try to place information in a format that is easily comprehensible without adding unnecessary complexity. This is a challenging task that we grapple with daily, especially when simplifying complex cases without losing their nuanced details.”

To illustrate this challenge further, let's look at the work of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF). As Mr. Waghre mentioned,

“The challenge here usually is that there is a difference between making things simple and making them simplistic.” At IFF, they actively tackle this challenge by creating short 30-second explainers. If you visit their Instagram page, you'll find engaging content breaking down complex topics like 'internet shutdowns' into easily digestible formats. These explainers aim to maintain nuance while ensuring accessibility. Here is one for your reference.

For issues that do not get addressed through advocacy channels and campaigns, the organization has a proven record of strategic litigation. They often participate in government consultation by providing their views. In the case of the Dark Patterns Guidelines public consultation, even though the Ministry had managed to create a satisfactory preliminary framework to start monitoring and regulating dark patterns, there was certainly scope for improvement. Hence, they submitted comments highlighting five broad areas of concern. 

In 2023, they filed 295 Right to Information (RTI) applications, 66 first appeals, and 2-second appeals, appearing before 12 first appellate authorities and the Central Information Commission (CIC) twice, to enhance transparency and accountability in various public bodies.

When asked about how the organization measures its impact, Mr. Waghre said, So in the litigation context, it's a success when we get largely a favorable ruling for digital rights in a court. However, in the policy advocacy sphere, success manifests when government consultations are conducted and our views are considered. You can take that as, you know, as a win of sorts.”

A word of advice from Mr. Waghre to all of us? 

“It's probably cliched to say this, but be careful who you interact with. Always keep your mind open to being inclusive, and thoughtful in your interactions with people on the internet. You might see that people who are generally polite in one-on-one conversations can be really rude online, and you never understand why, they may have their reasons to do that. There are a lot of things that we don’t see in our interactions on the internet, and there are a lot of things we don’t see about how technology is affecting people’s lives. Just because one technology has been beneficial for you doesn’t mean it’s beneficial for a child from a marginalized background or an older pensioner and things like that. So, always be receptive and understanding of the ways that technology is affecting people and their lives right.”

Lastly, he said “The real change is not going to come from one organization split across Delhi and Bangalore. The real change is going to come from the communities talking about these issues, raising them at every point possible, whether it's in conversations at home, in WhatsApp groups, etc.” 

Who anticipated the jeopardy our rights were in? They are not just a matter of privilege, but the very foundation of a democratic and inclusive digital society. Digital rights are human rights, just in the digital realm. Organizations like the Internet Freedom Foundation work tirelessly to raise awareness about how technology shapes our rights, for goods and ills, and hold the organizations who use it for their benefit rather than ours answerable. It is a battle for greater transparency and accountability, one that hinges on societal change and needs education, discussion, and arguments to be won.

Written by Nishtha Sehgal

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