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Anti-Social Network

by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 01, 2011 03:59 PM
Social media is driving teens to a reality they can't handle. This article by Max Martin was published in Mail Today on February 27, 2011.

THIS is the generation of instant messaging and two-minute noodles. Impatient teenagers are always plugged in to their computers and cell phones. Their reality is virtual and most of their friends can be found online. "It's the coolest way to keep in touch," says Charlotte William, a college student in Bangalore whose Facebook was got flooded with birthday greetings on Saturday. Her FB page is an almost-instantly updated open book of her life. 

Such minute-by-minute minute updates are an integral part of any teenager's life but the older generation is cautious. Not just old-fashioned people but even the tech-savvy are raising several issues with this uncontrolled explosion of social networking. India is the seventh largest social networking market in the world, with millions of users and many issues like privacy, etiquette, commercial, and political interests. Even though people have control over the information they post online, unauthorised access -- usage and republication -- is a major cause of concern, says Nikhil Pahwa, who publishes MediaNama, a mobile business news site based in Delhi. "You put up information about friends and family without realising the enormous consequences of it being in the public domain," says Pahwa.

"I see a lot of people exchanging personal messages and phone numbers on their walls. A lot of people are rather nonchalant about it," says Christian Wolff, a German development researcher, living in Hyderabad, who finds it amazing how Indians are not as concerned about their privacy as they should be. Bangalore-based lawyer Sarim Naved says the internet gives people a misplaced sense of anonymity, which makes them shed their inhibitions -- and etiquette. Should you allow a friend to post pictures of you from that crazy party last night? What if a family member sees them? We still live by traditional values and customs and footloose pictures may not be appreciated. 

And while you may think that your privacy settings are in place to never allow such an unfortunate incident take place, privacy settings give a false sense of security. "Many people cannot figure out how to put filters on," says Yamini Atmavilas, a teacher of gender studies in Hyderabad. She also says that social networking is a mixed bag: "Studies show that women use social networks differently from men. They have helped build women's social capital, providing an outlet for connection and expression." 

AARTI Mundkur, who was involved in the national 'Pink Chaddi' campaign against the pub-attacking Sri Ram Sene, agrees. "Social networks capture only the imagination of the upper middle class -- and fail to evoke any other kind of response," says this activist lawyer. While the social media is powerful -- and can be used for many purposes -- it is limited in scope. 

Also, these sites are turning into what Wolff calls 'all-devouring marketing machines'. Facebook, for instance, is always in the midst of some controversy over its automatic personalisation or using technology to accommodate differences between individuals, so that disbursing personalised advertisements gets easier. Most of us do not realise that every little bit of information we post online is under the scrutiny of corporate entities that analyse and track browsing, spending, networking, and even music preferences. 

"They make money with the data you post online for free," says Anivar Aravind, an IT consultant and commentator who started the online campaign for justice for Binayak Sen. "Even worse is when these service providers pass on this personal information to the government as Yahoo did in China leading to the imprisonment of a journalist," says Aravind. 

Also getting increasingly active in the online circuit are crooks, says Shantanu Ghosh, who handles the India product operations of Symantec, a leading network and computer security firm. These crooks, he says, launch virus attacks, put up false events to attract people, and spoof networking sites to extract personal data. 

"This attack was observed before the Cricket World Cup 2011. Attackers had created a page offering ticket deals for the World Cup final in Mumbai, requiring users to log into their social networking accounts. Those who fell for this trick would have ended up revealing their confidential login information to these attackers." Ghosh advises: "You should treat anything you see online with skepticism -- especially if it involves clicking a link or installing an application." Also make sure you check and understand privacy policies and settings.

This is even more important because existing laws on cyber crime are not strong enough. Also, the question whether new laws will be effective remains. 

"It really depends on the law. If it goes into too much detail then it will be rendered irrelevant because of advancements in technology," says Sunil Abraham, who heads Centre for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based research group. "A good law usually focuses on principles. What we need in India is a privacy regulator that can dynamically interpret the principles in law to quickly react to developments on the internet." 

  • Read the article in Mail Today here
  • Also see the article in the Free Library here
  • Download the news from Mail Today here (pdf, 2.92 MB)

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