Vijay Mukhi: An Open Letter to the Chief Election Commissioner

04 Sep,2013

Dear Mr V S Sampath,

Chief Election Commissioner


At the very beginning, there is no doubt that every Indian and most of the world acknowledge the professional manner in which you conduct elections. But where I need to pick a bone with the EC is that it is not paying heed to how technology changes the world we live in and therefore the entire election process starting from voter enrolment to voter lists to campaigning to casting my vote.


On the 16th of June, I sent you an email and your office replied on the 24th. This is what I understood your office had to say. The EC creates a golden rule 48 hrs before the last vote is cast so that there are no external influences on a  voter before he/she casts a  vote. This made sense in a way as you did not want the voter to be influenced in casting a vote. You do this by making sure that no media house in India publishes any exit poll, opinion poll or better still any election analysis whatsoever during this 48 hour period. All this was doable before the Internet as the Press and TV were finally Indian entities and therefore you the EC had lots of powers to make sure that your diktat was followed. With the decentralised nature of the Internet, which has no owners and no legal boundaries, I see no way in which you could prevent this from happening.


This is why.


What stops anyone from going onto Twitter and starting a heated discussion one day before the elections claiming his or her favourite party has won the elections. Ditto for starting a Facebook page or a blog or a chat room or videos etc etc. Even if a miracle happened, the EC would not be able to stop the Internet or the Social Web from analysing the elections threadbare. Better still, you do not ban exit polls or opinion polls, what you ban is that they are not published during these golden hours. Anyone can conduct an exit poll in the morning which is legal and then use the Internet to publish the results, thanks to the anonymity the web offers, it would take you centuries to find out the people behind it. The problem with rules is that because you cannot enforce them, the law abiding will follow them but the fraudsters would break them and the entire matter goes underground with no checks and balances. This would mean that the bigger media houses who can be expected to be fair will follow the law, people who want to misuse the law will not obey your orders. The genie is out of the bottle, let’s not use archaic laws to put it back. Even the mighty US does not try and legislate or control the social web.


Now let’s take the curious case of my website Your letter indirectly says that I do election analysis, it did not say that I did not. Let me tell you what I really do. Last December, I started my journey in trying to predict who would win the elections in cyberspace. It took me six months to get my code correct, which by the way makes me a good programmer. For the last three months, my code is on auto-pilot, it runs without any human intervention, that is, I do nothing. My code runs on a server in the UK or the US, these days with cloud technology we have no idea where our code runs, I know that it does not run in India for sure. Then it collects data from Twitter and Facebook which are both foreign entities and stores them. For the record I have been collecting over 75,000 tweets every day. I then want to know the sentiment of each tweet, that is, is a tweet positive or negative for the purposes of election analysis. You understand that I cannot read so many tweets a day so I use a technology called Machine Learning, better known as magic. I have in the past fed my code say about 3000 tweets categorising each tweet as positive or negative. My model learns from this and then when I feed it a 3001st tweet it should figure out whether the tweet is positive or negative. This is why it is called magic as it learns from experience, from the past. I then apply, today simple but could be very complex rules that allow my Machine Learning models to predict who would win the cyberspace elections.


This only means that even I, the original creator of the model, have no idea what the model will predict. It all depends upon the data that is fed to it. So from a legal perspective, I may have written the original code, but I am not privy to what it would say nor can I predict what it will predict in the future, so can I be counted as the person who made the election analysis. I think not. I must repeat that none of this is taking place on the shores of India. This means that the only way you know that is my site is because I am saying so. What if, I allowed a US citizen to borrow my code and then he sets up a server in the US. The irony is that he is allowed to do the same thing with my code, but you do not permit me to do so. Am I paying a price for being honest and admitting upfront that the website belongs to me. There is no way of allowing the world minus India to see my website during the 48 hours. The irony is that I could during your forbidden 48 hour visit every media house website and place a link in their numerous comments section to my web site. Would they also be breaking the law. If someone this did to frame me , how would you find the culprit or would the long hand of the law point in my direction.


All that this means is that I would have to shut down my website only 48 hrs before the poll closes as you do not want any new election analysis to come up during this time period. The key word is new. If I stop my election analysis code, I presume you would have no problem. If you want me to bring down my entire site, then every media website would have to be taken down. The bigger problem is defining what I do. I am not conducting a poll as I do not physically or on the phone ask anyone questions. No one is aware that  am doing what I am doing. This science is called Data Mining. Is this allowed. I am allowed to collect data from the social web and display it or is even this called election analysis. We are nitpicking because this is what happens when you do not look at technology when drafting laws or changing laws to be sensitive towards technology. I could go on and on but my publisher is wary of the size of my column.


My request to you Sir is to call a meeting of the entire election ecosystem, which is you, the state , the political parties and more importantly a constituency that you have forgotten, the technology world. Lets us all sit for a couple of days in  quiet place and take each and every section of the Representation of People’s Act and see the effect of technology on it. If need be, we must rewrite our election code of conduct keeping the changes technology has bought about on society. If we do not, candidates will flout the election code of conduct in cyberspace and we do not want to compromise the majesty of the Election Commission in any way. India has taught the world how to use technology, some of the largest projects in the world use Indian technology, our election process and laws must also.


In Maharashtra the State Election Commission had created a committee with me as one of the embers, which went into the issue of allowing people to vote from the comforts of their homes for the Mumbai Muncipal elections. Our suggestions went nowhere but we need India to be one of the first countries that uses technology in the entire voting process. Some years ago I was part of a delegation that suggested to the EC that we needed a paper trail, you actually agreed, let us please work to make our elections process be more technology friendly and not less.


Let’s start by allowing all of us to freely analyse elections whether on the social web or in the press or on TV, let’s abolish the 48-hour restrictions keeping the dynamics of the social web in mind.


Vijay Mukhi

Social Media Psephologist



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