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Internet privacy is largely misunderstood

MUMBAI:  Experts at a panel discussion on ‘Internet and Democracy: Interloper or Catalyst?’ at the FICCI Frames 2014 convention cautioned that internet privacy is largely misunderstood.

While businesses in general is not interested in mining data that is not relevant to their sales, customers are reluctant to share their details largely so as not to be spammed. It is important for website developers to showcase their privacy policy properly.

This has implications for youngsters’ relationship with Facebook and Twitter after they realise that potential employers have access to their posts. In this regard, the panel felt that there is a lack of privacy literacy especially among young people.

They seem unable to interpret the privacy policies of the various platforms. Even if they can interpret the policy, they are cognitively not yet adept at understanding its implications. Hence, it is important to develop privacy literacy in the social media age.

The panellists included PR expert Roger Fisk, who was president of Obama’s campaign; Google India head of public policy and government relations Chetan Krishnaswamy; NDTV director of strategy and managing editor Suparna Singh; founder Ronak Samantray, and Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University Prof. Mike Best.

The session was moderated by BBC Global News senior anchor Jon Sopel.

Fisk described the internet as something that amplifies human nature. As a tool, it allows organisations to have a dialogue with people and be transparent. In Obama’s first election campaign, it gave people the tools to self-organise and personalise their involvement in the campaign. It was the first time that an American campaign had opened up its web page and allowed people to come online and personalise their involvement in the campaign.

The second campaign saw a shift from the desktop online existence to a mobile online existence. The campaign managers had to create the tools to adapt to that transition.

To describe the story of the internet’s growth in India, Krishnaswamy said that this growth led to a lot of opportunities. With four million users coming online every month, almost all of them on mobiles, the mobile is now the real tool of empowerment. Future users would largely be from the non-English-speaking populace.

Language websites are already growing faster than English websites. As far as the government is concerned, there is an increasing belief in connecting with the average citizen through the internet. “Poverty is linked to information poverty and this is believed by the government too,” he said.

The internet has great power and it can only make democracy a better social catalyst, he added.

According to Suparna Singh, the internet still has very limited exchange of actual opinion or dialogue. She said that India is one election away from the social media becoming an apparatus of change. Presently, it is mainly a platform for crowd-based anger and there is a marked reluctance of prime ministerial candidates to appear in a ‘town hall’ and take questions.

Politicians still talk ‘at’ people, not ‘to’ them. The internet will have more relevance during the next election, she predicted.

Samantray discussed how his company had helped businesses tap into the power of the internet through simple SMS. While regular businesses update their sites once or twice a year, SMS messages are updated about four times a month because they are simple.

“We have been focusing on elections and election monitoring,” said Best.

Describing how they began in 2011 with the Nigerian election that was a make-or-break election much like the upcoming Indian election, he discussed how they analysed, flagged and tagged reports for electoral irregularity using internet tools. They are now keen to explore ways to ensure free and fair elections in India.