[Editorial Analysis] The murky space of ‘social audio’

Mains Paper 3: Science and Tech
Prelims level: Clubhouse
Mains level: Awareness and role of technology

Context:

• Clubhouse, a new social networking app based around audio rooms. the focus purely on audio-based interaction thus different from other apps like Twitter, Instagram etc.

The technology:

• The app neither has any separate texting features, nor the option to create elaborate online profiles, thus keeping the focus purely on audio-based interaction.

• Users can also join various ‘clubs’, which are groups of members that share a common interest. After joining, users may get alerts for rooms hosted by such clubs.

• A person can even start a club of their own, or ‘drop-in’ into any room mentioned on the Home or Explore page, as a listener or a speaker during a discussion.

Regulation challenges:

• Nature of the app raises a number of questions on privacy and security.

• Audio rooms are likely to throw up new challenges for data regulators, who are yet to find effective ways to regulate traditional social media platforms.

• Audio-based interactions are faster and in real time, mirroring real-life far closely than text-based interactions. Hence, traditional methods of content moderation may not work here.

• An app like Clubhouse, cyberbullying and trolling, driven by sexism, racism and communalism, can be even more damaging.

• The experience on Clubhouse, therefore, involves constant hyper-awareness about how every action is being broadcast to followers.

• This is in contrast to popular platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and others, which, for all their flaws, allow browsing in relative invisibility. This awareness, along with a fear of being judged, might limit people from exploring the app’s content.

• Concerns have been raised over how Clubhouse temporarily records the audio in a room while the room is live, “for purposes of investigating the incident”, and deletes it when the room ends. However, with the lack of end-to-end encryption, the data is still potentially accessible.

• Experts opine, the platform’s practices are violative of numerous provisions of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), including rules on security, proportionality and necessity principles and confidentiality of communications.

• According to a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory, the back-end infrastructure of Clubhouse is supplied by a Chinese start-up called Agora. The report also mentions a possibility of the Chinese government accessing raw audio, as well as other security flaws.

• India still lacks a stringent data protection law, and thus, its users are far more susceptible to data breaches and privacy violations.

• The lack of end-to-end encryption in Clubhouse could thus make it an easy tool for government surveillance.
• Clubhouse also seeks permission to access users’ contacts, which is a significant privacy concern, as it gives the app information about people who might never even join it in the first place.

• There is no mechanism to control who can follow whom, which further affects privacy and contributes to the ‘harassment’ culture.

The big picture:

• It represents an attempt to innovate and provide an alternative to traditional platforms.

• The e Big Tech will strive to protect their dominant positions in one of two ways — either by simply acquiring the potential competitor, known as a ‘killer acquisition’, or by copying the unique features of their competitor apps and adding them to their own platforms.

• It remains to be seen whether such moves will affect Clubhouse, which was valued at $4 billion as of April 2021.

Conclusion:

• For the average user, Clubhouse might seem like a great, lightweight app with an innovative premise. But it does not offer much in terms of privacy and data protection, and in that sense, it is not very different from traditional platforms.

• Apps like Signal are an exception in this regard. While the market of ‘social audio’ is likely to soon become a battleground, the medium won’t truly progress until innovation is balanced with respect for privacy, security and data rights.

Mains Questions:

Q.1) With the lack of strong data protection laws in India what are the continued challenges faced by it in the sphere of cybersecurity. Examine in the light of the recent IT Regulations, 2020.

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