We are writing up research for this project as a book, and in which we argue that the global dominance of the Meta owned messaging app WhatsApp, and the recent ideological and policy shift by big tech towards digital private spaces raises important questions about the balance between public and private interests in a digital age. Privacy Techtonics examines how as an idea and a practice, digital privacy is infused with power relations, from intimate spaces of everyday life to the board rooms of big tech and the policies of state governments.
Drawing on extensive research in India, WhatsApp’s largest market, Privacy Techtonics shifts attention away from western experiences of digital technology and privacy and decolonises privacy studies by centring the ‘digital peripheries’ and ordinary digital technologies. In this crucial context we ask who has a right to digital privacy, how is privacy constructed and regulated by different actors and stakeholders, and what are ordinary ‘citizens’’ expectations and experiences of digital privacy? We examine how and why digital privacy is designed through end-to-end encryption, the legal and regulatory landscapes produced through relationships between big tech and government, and the digital lives of ordinary people. The book concludes that whilst WhatsApp is intended to enhance democratic life, in its largest global market, it is also implicated in undermining everyday democracy.
Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, this paper documents how ordinary digital technologies, such as WhatsApp, were (re)appropriated for communication and pandemic coordination at a time when face-to-face meetings were impossible, there was also an emergent ‘dark’ side to its use by middle class Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs). In the context of India’s democratic backsliding, RWAs deployed everyday technologies to (re)configure exclusionary digital socio-spatial boundaries through practices of ‘grassroots authoritarianism’. The paper documents how the national government co-opted RWAs in the implementation of Covid-19 rules and examines their role as an extension of the state within a longer history of middle class power in India’s cities. We evidence how the ‘WhatsApp panopticon’ was mobilised as a tool of everyday community care and surveillance to shape morality regimes and influence compliance of residents with national and locally enforced rules. We argue that digital socio-spatial practices of securitisation, fear, and compliance represent forms of ‘grassroots authoritarianism’ that echo and ensconce state-led ideological change in India. Building on ‘everyday authoritarianism’ we show how digital technologies and middle class organisations are mediating India’s authoritarian shift from below.
Territory, Politics, Governance
For a Special Issue on Borders, bordering and sovereignty in digital spaces. Edited by Carwyn Morris and Chenchen Zhang
Environment and Planning C: Politics and Society
13 May 2021
11 May 2019
28 February 2019