The murky space of ‘social audio’

While apps like Clubhouse give a push to innovation, privacy and data rights remain out of focus

Updated - June 10, 2021 12:41 am IST

Published - June 10, 2021 12:40 am IST

Clubhouse, a new social networking app based around audio rooms , surpassed 2 million Android downloads across the world last month. The key feature of the app is the unique medium — audio — through which its users interact. This distinguishes it from well-established social media and messaging platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, WhatsApp, and YouTube, which employ text, images, video, or a combination of three. In Clubhouse, the concept of old-school text chat rooms is replaced with the immediacy of the human voice. The app neither has any separate texting features, nor the option to create elaborate online profiles, thus keeping the focus purely on audio-based interaction.

Besides choosing their interests, users can also join various ‘clubs’, which are groups of members that share a common interest. After joining, users may get alerts for rooms hosted by such clubs. Clubs can also be used to interact with other people with whom they might share similar interests. A person can even start a club of their own, or ‘drop-in’ into any room mentioned on the Home or Explore page, as a listener or a speaker during a discussion.

Also read | The dawn of social audio apps and their relevance to users

Regulation challenges

The very nature of the app raises a number of questions on privacy and security. Audio rooms are likely to throw up new challenges for data regulators, who are yet to find effective ways to regulate traditional social media platforms. Audio-based interactions are faster and in real time, mirroring real-life far closely than text-based interactions. Hence, traditional methods of content moderation may not work here. Further, on an app like Clubhouse, cyberbullying and trolling, driven by sexism, racism and communalism, can be even more damaging.

The app allows a person to join any room that their friends are a part of, which may allow anyone to ‘stalk’ a person as they move from room to room; the app even sends notifications to their followers. The experience on Clubhouse, therefore, involves constant hyper-awareness about how every action is being broadcast to followers. This is in contrast to popular platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and others, which, for all their flaws, allow browsing in relative invisibility. This awareness, along with a fear of being judged, might limit people from exploring the app’s content.

Concerns have been raised over how Clubhouse temporarily records the audio in a room while the room is live, “for purposes of investigating the incident”, and deletes it when the room ends. However, with the lack of end-to-end encryption, the data is still potentially accessible. Furthermore, this recording is done without the consent of the user.

Also read | Clubhouse says reviewing data protection practices after report points to flaws

According to privacy expert Alexander Hanff, the platform’s practices are violative of numerous provisions of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), including rules on security, proportionality and necessity principles and confidentiality of communications (Article 5), rules related to consent for processing of personal data (Article 6), and provisions on data protection by design and by default (Article 25).

According to a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory, the back-end infrastructure of Clubhouse is supplied by a Chinese start-up called Agora. The report also mentions a possibility of the Chinese government accessing raw audio, as well as other security flaws.

It is important to note that India still lacks a stringent data protection law, and thus, its users are far more susceptible to data breaches and privacy violations. Currently, the Central government and WhatsApp are locked in a legal battle over the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 , which require breaching encrypted channels to trace the originator of messages. The lack of end-to-end encryption in Clubhouse could thus make it an easy tool for government surveillance.

Also read | Clubhouse a sandbox for talking 'influencers'

Clubhouse also seeks permission to access users’ contacts, which is a significant privacy concern, as it gives the app information about people who might never even join it in the first place. If a user chooses not to share their contact list, they are not allowed to send invites to others. In turn, the contact list is shared not only with app developers but also with people in a user’s contact list. There is no mechanism to control who can follow whom, which further affects privacy and contributes to the ‘harassment’ culture.

App permissions on smartphones have always raised questions of privacy. Even apps that are meant for limited purposes, such as sharing or managing files, or playing music or videos, often require permissions to access the phone’s camera, contacts, or call history.

The big picture

The rise of Clubhouse cannot be studied in isolation. It is one of the several apps that have grown popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, as millions of people stuck in their homes look for new methods to communicate with each other. But its flaws aside, Clubhouse, with its promise of revolutionising social media and communication through audio rooms, represents an attempt to innovate and provide an alternative to traditional platforms.

Also read | China blocks Clubhouse, app used for political discussion

In competition law terms, one way through which powerful firms like Facebook and Twitter can be challenged is by exploiting opportunities in spaces that are adjacent to the market where these firms reign supreme. This is what upstarts like Clubhouse are trying to do, as ‘social audio’ is one such adjacent market that has opened up only recently.

However, as has been observed over time, the Big Tech will strive to protect their dominant positions in one of two ways — either by simply acquiring the potential competitor, known as a ‘killer acquisition’, or by copying the unique features of their competitor apps and adding them to their own platforms.

Also read | Central agencies pry on Clubhouse chat rooms

The Big Tech giants already enjoy, thanks to their massive user base, access to more data and network effects (a phenomenon whereby a product or a service gains additional value as more people use it). Thus, they have often made clones or added features of newly popular apps to their already bloated platforms. When Snapchat introduced stories, mainstream platforms also came up with the feature a few years later. Similar trends were noticed when Zoom shot to fame and Google introduced Google Meet, or when TikTok became popular and Instagram launched ‘reels’. With Clubhouse’s growing popularity now, Twitter has introduced ‘Spaces’, and Facebook is working on a similar feature as well. But this time, LinkedIn, Discord, Reddit and Spotify have also joined the bandwagon. One wonders what this means for innovation in the world of tech. However, it remains to be seen whether such moves will affect Clubhouse, which was valued at $4 billion as of April 2021.

For the average user, Clubhouse might seem like a great, lightweight app with an innovative premise. But it does not offer much in terms of privacy and data protection, and in that sense, it is not very different from traditional platforms. Apps like Signal are an exception in this regard. While the market of ‘social audio’ is likely to soon become a battleground, the medium won’t truly progress until innovation is balanced with respect for privacy, security and data rights.

The authors are law students at the Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University

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