Back in 2016, IT consultant Kiran Chandra decided to run a small experiment on Facebook from his Chennai office. He was sipping on coffee with a friend discussing surveillance and big data when he decided to advertise a fictitious product named "Brahmin Bags" on Facebook, just out of curiosity. Not only did the social media giant allow Kiran to micro-target his advertisements to only ‘Iyengars’, but he says he was also able to exclude ‘Dalits’, ‘Muslims’, and other communities which were not of interest to his fictitious product.
Through his ad campaign, Kiran was able to target advertisements to ‘Brahmins’, ‘Iyengars and ‘upper-middle class’, with a potential reach of 13,000 people in total, according to his Facebook's ad manager. His advertisement was able to exclude people based on criteria such as an affinity for ‘mid-high value goods’. Those involved in "low class" work were considered as demographic and excluded. Those who were ‘Dalit’, ‘Iyer’, ‘lower middle class’ and ‘other backward class’ were also allowed to be excluded by the ad-manager, says Kiran, who is the general secretary of Free Software Movement of India (FSMI), a network of organizations across the country working for the promotion and adoption of Free Software in various domains.
Back in 2016, Facebook allowed advertisers to target and exclude users on the basis of their caste, religion and economic status. The feature has since been disabled, but Facebook still allows advertisers to choose “Interests” of the users they want to advertise to. And these interest categories can still have caste markers.
(Screenshot from Kiran Chandra's experiment to do targetted advertising based on caste in 2016)
Responding to queries on the social media platform enabling discrimination in advertising, Facebook said that it allows certain targeting segments related to ‘cultural topics. A spokesperson for Facebook said, “There is no place for discrimination on Facebook. We build interests based on people’s actions on Facebook such as liking a Page or clicking on an ad, not their personal traits or background. We’re renaming these interests to make this clearer.”
But even now, advertisers can select ‘Iyer topics’, ‘Iyengar topics’ or ‘Dalit topics’ under ‘Interests’ while advertising. Until recently, the respective terms were simply ‘Iyer’, ‘Iyengar’ and ‘Dalit’. The ‘renaming’ of interests has been done by Facebook to make it clear that the terms do not represent the group, but those interested in those topics. However, activists argue that those who have an interest in ‘Iyer’ or ‘Iyengar’ topics will predominantly be Iyers or Iyengars, respectively. In effect, a fair bit of caste-based targeting can be done using Interest Targeting.
Facebook says that ‘Iyengar topics’ are most often used as a target for Iyengar Yoga and such topics, and ‘Dalit topics’ and ‘Iyer topics’ are mainly used to promote specific cuisine. The company claims there is no abuse of these terms.
What's in a name?
Activists are not buying Facebook’s explanation. "Instead of using direct caste names, they use various combinations of words along with caste names. In a country like India, where caste discrimination is widespread, such a cosmetic change will not make any difference to those who want to give ads that target or exclude certain communities," says Kiran.
"As long as the terms related to castes remains while giving ads, there is the scope to exclude certain communities from these ads, which is a discriminatory practice. Also, unlike real-world discrimination which is visible, and can be exposed, and fought against, a lot of the discrimination on platforms such as Facebook happens in the background," he adds.
(Now Facebook classifies the interests as topics)
In this context, it is important to note last week's decision by the US Housing and Urban Development Department to file charges against Facebook for discriminating on the basis of race through the process of targeted advertising. A few days before this development, Facebook reached a settlement for millions of dollars with civil rights groups over similar charges.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development charged Facebook for allowing landlord and real estate agents to exclude non-Christians, immigrants and minorities from housing ads.
"This only confirms that such discriminatory practices are part of Facebook's business model," Kiran added.
Facebook claims that since December 2018 the company has taken steps to prevent discrimination on its platform by bringing changes to its advertising platform. The company had even reportedly made changes to its ads targeting options to prevent misuse by advertisers.
(Facebook updated their non discrimination policy in December 2018 but hasnt changed their advertising model)
No law for digital discrimination
Alok Prasanna Kumar, a senior resident fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy is of the view that unlike in the US, the Indian laws understand discrimination only through the context of untouchability nor do the laws take into account discrimination in private spaces. Thus, the discriminatory practices of Facebook would go unchecked in India.
"The law only understands discrimination from the context of untouchability but what our laws don't understand is that one person saying he will offer job only to Brahmins is also discrimination," says Alok. He points to the Supreme Court verdict in the 2005 case of Zoroastrian Co-operative Housing Society vs the District Registrar Co-operative Societies case, which permitted the Zoroastrian cooperative to allow only people from their community into the housing society.
(Facebook allows advertisers to select caste and even sub-castes)
"So as long as I don't say for instance that all Dalits or Muslims are not allowed but everyone else is allowed then it's not discrimination. This is a problem and a very formulaic reading of the Constitution and doesn't take into account power differentiations and ground reality," said Alok who pointed out that even matrimony websites ask for caste details and send their ads based on their caste preferences. "There is a legal framework which understands untouchability and discrimination in public spaces but when it comes to private spaces we don't have a legal understanding of what it means. There is a much larger debate here," he added.
Caste-targeting in elections?
India goes to elections in seven phases beginning April 11, 2018. The Lok Sabha Elections come two years after Facebook was caught in the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2016, where data gathered from Facebook users in the US was used to target political advertisements to them based on their "interests".
FSMI and other civil rights groups from Hyderabad had in March reached out to the Telangana Election Commission pointing out to officials that the targeting feature provided by Facebook to political parties constitutes a violation of Section 123 of the Representation of Peoples Act 1947 which prohibits undue influence to further prospects of a candidate contesting elections. The EC responded positively to the groups but never acted on these concerns raised by the groups.
"As long as these interest categories remain, there is the possibility of them being used for even political ads. These ads may be taken down once issued, but the important thing is to stop even the possibility of such ads. There is a provision in the law and the Election Commission of India should exercise it," says Kiran. There is a need for new provisions in the upcoming data protection laws that examine these issues and prevent any kind of targeted advertising on the basis of caste and religion, among other sensitive issues even beyond elections," he added.