By Author: by Shilpa Mariam Anil, Security Television Network
September 5, 2021 (Security Television Network) — Author: by Shilpa Mariam Anil, Security Television Network
On May 30th around 12:30pm I, an Indian woman from Kottayam, Kerala, received an invite from a friend asking to join an audio-only chat room named “Clubhouse”. Being curious as to what this entailed, I clicked on the link and downloaded this new application through the google play store.
After a few days of patiently waiting, my account was fully activated. I could not wait to experience the hype that many of my friends were now talking about surrounding this application. Nevertheless, during those few days I conducted some of my own research about the app. Clubhouse is an invite-only social networking application that exists for both iOS and android phone users; both versions of the app were launched in March of 2020. Hitting more than 1 million downloads in India alone and in less than a week, it became very popular in a short period of time.
Purpose and Privacy
The purpose of this application is to communicate through audio chat rooms. This can be an attractive function for thousands of listeners. The app displays a live audio chat room where up to five thousand people can gather in order to speak and listen to a group. Similar to other social networking platforms, content on the clubhouse is clear regarding user’s privacy. A chatroom is in complete control of the moderator(s) of the live session so that the content and the people who speak are filtered and guided properly. The conversations along with the process of being live are completely encrypted, covering all major users’ privacy concerns.
According to the application’s terms of agreement, live conversation cannot be shared, copied, or reproduced within the app. It is prohibited on the app’s policy to record and publish the rooms without the speaker or Moderator’s consent. Although, it is difficult to mandate this through aspects such as screen recording, or recording conversations on another phone.
This privacy issue has raised concerns in many groups of people. Subjects like bullying, racist comments in between discussions, and tones of harassment have been heard. Thus, the app came up with a new privacy update. This allows the moderators to have the power of removing and adding people to their group discussion, also including the option to mute and unmute people on command. However, the app still allows users to make an unlimited amount of comments on topics that are, or are not articulated in a session.
Nandana Nair, a social worker from India, told the Security Television Network, “When I joined [Clubhouse] it was less interesting for me as I could not find any good groups or discussion topics to join, but [on the] last day I found a club discussing the LGBTQ rights and rules around the globe, I found it extremely useful and enlightening because I heard so many perspectives on the topic. As part of the pride month, the moderators conducted classes and I found more people understanding the soul concept of the pride month.”
Megha Suresh, a person who regularly uses the app stated “ I’m from Kerala, India. Malayali people usually have the tradition of creating a good discussion over a cup of chai tea or a hot dosa, a custom Indian food. This practice existed long before the pandemic struck and altered the world. However, Clubhouse is now a ‘chayakada’ [tea shop] for people to discuss ideas, share stories, and even host karaoke nights”. Suresh also added that, “there are no limitations on what to talk about within the platform, which I feel is a bad thing, [the] last day I was on, I saw a group of people rating and roasting others based on their profile photos. That is not the only thing… there are rooms that spread hate speech, misinformation, even talk about islamophobia and casteism. I guess the app is far from a good app regarding all [of] this.”
Clubhouse has become very popular amongst Indian users. From talking about profound topics to just goofing around with friends, millions of people log in every day. To give an idea about how random these topics can be, some including: “salt or sugar what do you like in your lime soda”, “walk-in single- go back mingled”, “kulukki sarbath- chili or not” were trending in the past week with almost 2000 listeners. Although there are much more serious and educational discussions that happen as well. For example, Red FM, a leading radio channel in India hosts a room for its listeners, allowing them to become the RJ’s.
In an interview with the moderators of the club and chat room, “Midnight music patrol,” they reflected on Clubhouse as being a platform that shows innovation to reduce pressure and mental stress for people, especially during the pandemic. This club currently has 900 followers and has around 100 new listeners every day to listen and enjoy the bliss of music and talks surrounding music. Irfan Zenh, one of the moderators, said ,“we host the session every night from 10:30pm until 3:00am. Sometimes it exceeds even that, this initiative of ours is to make the people miss the world a little less since everyone is under the COVID-19 protocol and at home. We try to ease our listener’s minds. Many of them even give us feedback that after a rough day our session and music is all that they need to cheer up.”
Asianet, a popular News network in Kerala hosted a session on June 22, 2021 titled, “Nammude kuttigalde jeevanu vila idano?”. This translates to, “Should we put a price tag on our kids?”. This is a talk which contemplates and explains the entire dowry system that exists in India and Kerala. Specifically the increase in the number of cases of physical abuse and death of women. This claims to be due to more dowry and money. The prior health minister of Kerala, K. K. Shailaja, was a part of the session to offer her thoughts and opinions. The session was educational for the listeners as the moderators and speakers talked about laws that exist for women against abuse. This talk also covered how kids should be educated within their school system. Asianet News then airs the details from its sessions on its night news bulletin.
(Instagram post of the even on Asianet news Instagram handle)
Kerala is a state that is rich in culture and tradition. Some people consider the dowry system as a tradition. The process involves marrying a daughter off, along with heaps of gold and money, for the groom and his family. The Asianet talk also contemplated if this tradition should be abolished or if the families who marry their daughters off should not label them based on the money they come with.
Surveys on Clubhouse
Not many people were confident in safety when it came to the privacy status of the application. Thus, I conducted a survey to know what the listeners think about the environment the app provides to its listeners. According to the survey, seventeen out of twenty-two people said that they feel Clubhouse is a safer place than other networking applications when it comes to talking about one’s own ideas and opinions. Also, 54.5 percent of people said that they feel safe while using the app amongst other people.
90.9% of people reported to the Security Television Network that they have not witnessed any sort of harassment while using this app. However, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) investigated the privacy policies of Clubhouse because of the rise in the number of users in India. Due to the rise in users (around 2.6 million) the Government of India also asked certain law enforcement agencies, like the intelligence and Narcotics Bureau, to monitor certain conversations on the app. By understanding what level the app is being used for negative reasons, it can be altered in order to become a safe space for all users.
The app installed a new set of privacy policies after they were pressurized by the Indian digital rights wing. Although, it did not create a sufficient solution to combat the discrimination, security threats, and hate speech that has been spreading amongst its Indian users. Many interviewees told the Security television Network that any social networking app launched in 2020-21, however advanced, should cover most of the privacy concerns with its users. Being an audio-only platform, the creators should have built a guard against the issues.
According to the IFF’s Instagram handle, the Clubhouse app was found to access and hold onto an excessive amount of users’ data. This includes: names, email addresses, contact details, etc. Based on the authorization in their terms and services, the app collects phone numbers from the users contacts and also provides the app with the users other social media handles like Instagram and Twitter. The app accesses users IP addresses, device names, tracks the people that their users interact with. They also keep a tab on the rooms one attends, and analyze the frequency and duration of the time one uses the app.
From a survey conducted (picture above), these remarks are what people said when referring to how they think the app could be made safer. One of the respondents from the survey said the app is, “the useful useless”, which means that it can be useful to a certain extent when it comes to the information and knowledge that can be gained. Although, it is also useless when it comes to less important topics, as well as the comments that are created on the post.
The main question that is asked is: why is this a relevant problem? The answer is because the collected information is against the right to privacy act in India. As one’s contact list and numbers are exposed without the user’s knowledge, it is against the data minimization policy that the app claims to have. Other personal information of the user is provided to others indirectly without the user’s knowledge, and this is not okay.
In order to make Clubhouse a safe and successful social media platform, it needs to improve its content moderation policies to protect against hate speech and retain users’ privacy. From my critical observation, I think the app not only requires an independent civil rights assessment, but also needs to come up with, or adopt, a new and effective human rights policy. As a platform that encourages free and open conversations, Clubhouse is titled as an app that empowers people. Clubhouse creates the ability to interact and socialize with people through cell phones.
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Dr. James Halldrhall@security20.com(202) 607-2421