Defender of your Digital Freedom

All Posts | Aug 31,2020

Letter to the Standing Committee on Information Technology on Content Moderation by Social Media Platforms

SFLC.in has written to the Standing Committee on Information Technology chaired by Dr. Shashi Tharoor on the Content Moderation policies of Social Media platforms.

The letter was written in light of the recent allegations that have come forward against social media platform Facebook regarding selectively moderating hate speech in favor of the ruling party on its platform. The Wall Street Journal published an article titled Facebook’s Hate-Speech Rules Collide With Indian Politicsthat came out on 14.08.2020 which raises serious concerns about the influence of social media giant Facebook Inc the electoral process in the country.

Through the Letter, SFLC.in has put forward the following requests in front of the committee -

  1. An open hearing with all major social media platforms as well as stakeholders including civil society organizations may be held to discuss the content moderation policies that are implemented by these platforms.
  2. An inquiry into the specific incidents that have been brought to light by the Wall Street Journal article may be conducted. Request to the committee to call for the records including the posts and email/internal communications relating to the alleged incidents from Facebook Inc.and examine them.
  3. An open call to the public to provide evidence about cases where social media platforms have taken a partisan approach in moderating content by favoring a political party or a group.

Civil society organizations like SFLC.in have been relentlessly working for holding social media intermediaries accountable for content moderation. We have published multiple reports in this regard, some of which are -

  1. Intermediary Liability 2.0 : A Shifting Paradigm
  2. The Future of Intermediary Liability in India
  3. Online Harassment: A Form of Censorship

SFLC.in has also offered to assist the committee in any manner deemed fit by it.

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All Posts | Jan 20,2016

Free Basics Investigation

So while all of us were busy turning the consultation paper on differential pricing of data services put out by TRAI into a battle ground for Net Neutrality in India, on the sidelines, we decided to checkout Free Basics in action. So we got hold of a Reliance SIM card and a dying smart phone to take the free* ride.

Dear TRAI, Free Basics is Still Around

Reliance is defying TRAI's order to shut down Free Basics

We started off with the possible vanity of the attempt since TRAI had already asked Reliance Communications to put the Free Basics program on hold, and Reliance said it has complied. However, we were greeted with the welcome message and then the confirmation button to accept Facebook's terms, Data policy, cookies policy and privacy policy.

Welcome to Free Basics

Turns out, Reliance chose to carry on providing Free Basics on its network, openly violating the regulator's order to temporarily shut down the service. Neither is Reliance or Facebook informing its users about the order.

Websites on Free Basics

There are about 135 websites registered with Free Basics. A curated, most likely hand-picked list of 45 services is provided as soon as the app opens, and the rest of them are hidden under 'More Services'.

Primarily, these are information oriented websites like news, encyclopedia, guides and tips. Further, there are services like classifieds, blood donation etc.

To see the full list of services available on Free Basics, browse through the below gallery of screenshots.

For First-time Internet Users

There is one site that introduces users about the basics of Internet on a site that isn't particularly branded. Based on traffic analysis, we determined that the site is served from an IP on Reliance's network. There is a disclaimer in the footer denying responsibility for the accuracy of information on the site.

Wikipedia on Free Basics

The only website in Free Basics currently that allows users to become content creators is Wikipedia, except sending comments on news articles. Although we weren't able to get the comment submission form load up on TOI's articles.

The Wikipedia editing experience seems to be the same as editing it over a regular 3G network. Interestingly, Free Basics doesn't use Wikipedia Zero, the project from Wikimedia Foundation to provide free-of-cost access to Wikipedia. WMF has taken a stand on Net Neutrality different from that of its usual friends and allies in support of this project and its aims. Free Basics seems to be using the regular method of accessing Wikipedia based on (a) the URLs being requested and (b) the absence of the usual banner on top of Wiki articles which notify its users about free data usage.

Music and Video

There are no video sites like Youtube available through Free Basics. We were however able to use a music streaming service from Hungama.com which had exactly 4 songs available for free. Unlike the dynamic nature of their service on the 'full' website, the list on the free basic version seems to be a static one, which has the same 4 songs available for a few days that we have been observing.Any of the other links that offer more music, pop up a message notifying the user about going out of Free Basics and applicable charges for further usage.

This is an example of how Free Basics users could be subjected to inferior quality services. The warning about data charges being applicable for accessing anything beyond the meagerly available content, makes the user give a second thought before proceeding.

Free Basics Hungama Music Free Basics Hungama Exit

Personal Blogs

Some of the sites listed in Free Basics appear to be personal blogs of individuals. Here's a direct link to one such blog which appear as is on Free Basics.

Technical Details

The Proxy Server

We tried to understand how Free Basics handles the proxy setup to relay connections from partnering websites to the users.This is the proxy server which acts as the gateway to the Facebook's version of 'free and basic' Internet. This server

After clicking on the service from the list, the app sends a request to the proxy server over HTTP with the target website's URL and the further communication happens over SSL which we haven't been able to inspect so far. Watch out for more updates about this.

Free Basics Proxy Requests

Here's an example of how the proxy request is structured. These requests are sent to the proxy for every single resource required on a web page, like images, CSS styles, Javascript code etc.

Free Basics Proxy Requests


Data Usage

We used Free Basics for almost an hour exploring the content on its partner websites. We also streamed all the 4 'basic bollywood' songs from Hungama's website to account for some significant data usage. We checked the available data balance before and after the one hour period. The balance report from Reliance confirms that the data usage through Free Basics has been zero rated by Reliance. The data usage accounted by the phone towards Free Basics app was about 40MB during that period, while Reliance reported only a consumption of about 1MB (used by other apps on the phone during that period).

Data Usage Report from Reliance

Data Usage Report on Phone

Lifetime "Free" Facebook

Of course, when we were away, there were these promotional text messages once in a while from Reliance, informing us about zero-rated Facebook for lifetime.

Welcome to Free Basics

Watch out for more updates on this post, as we continue to find out more about Free Basics. Tweet to us @SFLC.in about what else you want to know.

All Posts | Aug 31,2015

How the news media is accessing Indrani Mukherjea’s entire virtual life..

Indrani Mukherjea is on the cover page of every news website today, in pictures where she is hugging her husband, Peter Mukherjea, or posing solo, or in a selfie. Her entire virtual life is flashing on news websites alongside the story of murder allegations against her. Essentially, the news companies have accessed and used her Facebook profile to add graphics to their story. In fact, Indiatoday.in has done a piece titled, 'Indrani Mukherjea Facebook Profile.'

But is that 'password protected' Facebook profile private enough to keep people from snooping and using content you posted? Facebook doesn't really give anyone that option and this is how it works -

All the content that users post on Facebook, such as photos, videos, blogs etc., constitutes copyrighted material. A copyright is a kind of intellectual property right that subsists in all works that are original. It gives the author an "exclusive right" to use, distribute, reproduce, perform as well as make adaptations of his/her work. Works that are literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and cinematographic are given copyright protection in India. Generally, the author of a work owns the copyright to it unless the work was created as part of an employment, in which case the employer will be the owner of the copyright. In case a person other than the author or owner wants to use a copyrighted work, he must obtain a license from the author/owner. In the present case there could be two situations - Either Indrani clicked the pictures herself and therefore owns the copyright to them, or that someone else clicked and tagged her in the photos, in which case that person owns the copyright. In none of these situations does the media, being a third party, have any right to use Indrani's photos. Nevertheless, in this particular case, who really owns the copyright does not matter. This is because as per Facebook's Terms of Service every user, at the time of signing-up, grants Facebook a "non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license" to use all of its content posted on Facebook that is covered by intellectual property rights. Further this 'right to use' is not limited to Facebook, because in its Terms of Service Facebook also allows third parties - users and non-users- to access, use and associate any user's content in cases where such content was posted using the "Public Setting".

Facebook's Terms of Service

The fine print that no one reads before clicking "I accept" and filling in their details for a new website, is a contract between the user and the website in question. The first paragraph of Facebook's Terms of Service, states :

"For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it."

Further the default settings for a user's pictures and posts is 'Public', which spells more menace for the users because Facebook's Terms of Service explicitly state:

"When you publish content or information using the Public setting, it means that you are allowing everyone, including people off of Facebook, to access and use that information, and to associate it with you (i.e., your name and profile picture)."

Therefore, through this term, Facebook is acting as a facilitator between its users and even third parties who have not entered into a contract with Facebook. Although it provides its users' with the option to upload their photos and videos using a 'private' setting, Facebook set the default setting to 'public' for all activities and also does not prompt or ask its users if they want to continue to keep their content 'public'. The broadly worded terms of service of this social media website take away from every user the right to protect his content if they are unaware of such settings.

Facebook facilitates in making our content available to everyone, it keeps a non-exclusive right to use anything we post on the platform, hence making it an extreme invasion of our privacy, overridden by a contract in fine print that nobody bothers to read.