“2018 is an incredibly important year for elections. Not just in the US mid-terms, but, around the world, there are important elections—in India, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan and Hungary—and we want to make sure we do everything we can to protect the integrity of these elections,” Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in his first formal appearance in front of the US Congress. Data diggers and digital monopolies have become that big that a California-based technology major will now ensure the integrity of Indian elections, something the citizens of India knew as the Election Commission of India’s responsibility till Mr Zuckerberg clarified as to who is in the driving seat. Speaking about the storm that has been raised on security lapses and privacy of data on the social media giant’s part, he said, “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry…I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here…It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm…That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.” In an increasingly wired world, the Election Commission of India will no doubt find its task of ensuring free and fair elections daunting. As it is, the poll panel has been subject to intense scrutiny after instances of several electronic voting machines (EVMs) malfunctioning were reported from various parts of the country where votes were found to be running to the ruling party’s, read the BJP’s, kitty, no matter which buttons were pressed. Now the tacit acceptance of Zuckerberg that data mined from Facebook played a huge role in swinging the American elections in favour of Donald Trump further complicates the matter for the Election Commission.
If elections can be compromised in the United Kingdom and the US where strong data security and privacy laws exist, what chance does the Election Commission of India stand in India to ensure elections are not unduly influenced? There is virtually no law to this effect in India. Repeated exposes of the Unique Identification Authority of India-Aadhaar data being available for sale have come to light. The Prime Minister’s own Narendra Modi app was found to be sending data about users who downloaded the app to a US-based firm without the knowledge of the users. Data of over 5.6 lakh Indian users was harvested by an app that shared its records with analytics and consulting company Cambridge Analytica, Facebook had recently said in a statement. These half a million users were affected after 335 Indian users installed the now inactive app, thisisyourdigitallife. Since Facebook users install and grant access to numerous apps on a day to day basis, one is sure that this is just the tip of the iceberg. In such a situation, ensuring free and fair elections is no doubt a nightmare for a luddite Indian bureaucracy which rules the roost at the Election Commission of India. But what is more perplexing is the audacity of a technology honcho who thinks it is his primary responsibility to ensure the fairness of elections around the world just because his social network is a part and parcel of people’s everyday lives. It is important that the Government of India wakes up to this reality. This had not possibly crossed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mind when he was all gleaming at Facebook’s US headquarters sitting next to Zuckerberg in September, 2015 thinking that he had roped in one of the real big daddies of the world of technology which would help him realise his Digital India dream. That dream, one is afraid, has turned into a nightmare.