BENGALURU/CHANDIGARH — Neta App, a phone app that gathers voter data by asking citizens to “rate” their politicians, has attracted the ire of the Chief Election Officer of Punjab, who said the app violates the Election Commission of India’s ban on publishing the results of any opinion poll during the voting season when the model code of conduct is in force.
The Chief Election Officer of Punjab has raised these concerns in a letter to the Secretary of the Election Commission of India. HuffPost India has accessed the letter, which states:
“As per Election Commission guidelines, ‘Section 126 (1) (b) of the RP Act 1951, displaying any election matter including results of any opinion poll or any other poll survey, in any electronic media would be prohibited during the period’. Hence, above mentioned apps are violating the model code of conduct.”
“You are requested to write to Google and Apple Companies to immediately remove these apps from the Play/App Store.”
The app, which has been downloaded over 1 million times on the Android Play Store, is still available there. In August 2018, Business Standard had quoted Mittal as saying that over 15 million “verified voters” had registered their preferences on the app.The business model of the app, Neta’s founder Pratham Mittal told HuffPost India, is to monetise data harvested from users by selling it to media houses.
Some people have also raised concerns because of the background of the app’s creators. Mittal, Neta App’s founder, comes from the family that owns Lovely Professional University — a private educational institute that recently hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several Bharatiya Janata Party ministers and senior leaders at the latest edition of the Indian Science Congress in January.
The company’s CEO is Robbin Sharma, the cofounder of IPAC — a political consultancy that, in its previous avatar as Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG), oversaw Modi’s 2014 election campaign. He is now on hiatus from the company, to work on Priyanka Gandhi’s campaign.
Earlier this year, Jagdeep Chhokar of election watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms, and Jaskirat Singh, a software professional, wrote that the app can be used to create a large scale Cambridge Analytica style database of individuals and their voting preferences, in a piece for The Wire.
“There is an app which has the potential to influence voters because its internal working does not seem to be clear or transparent,” they wrote. “It therefore seems necessary for the Election Commission of India to satisfy itself and the voters that this effort does not pose any threat to the integrity of democracy in India in general and the 2019 election in particular.”
Users can also see detailed rankings across parties, states or constituencies. The app also shows party standings (at the time of writing, it’s predicting that 213 seats will go to the BJP). Users can also leave feedback for different leaders—in the wake of the controversy between Aatishi and Gautam Gambhir, most of the recent comments have been about these two politicians, although PM Modi also keeps getting comments in the feed.
When you open the app, it asks you who you’re going to vote for, and also to rate the Prime Minister, which is used to predict results, and to show an approval rating. According to the company, it uses a number of mechanisms to prevent fake voters with OTP-based authentication of phones, and AI systems that track user behaviour. This also means that the app ends up collecting a huge amount of data about the political preferences of its users—data which, as has been extensively reported by HuffPost India, is extremely valuable to political parties out to manipulate your vote.
What does the Neta app do?
The Neta app is like Zomato for politicians. Once you download it, the app captures your location to show you the politicians who represent you, asks you who you will vote for, and allows you to rate these leaders.
It also asks you to rate the Prime Minister, and claims to show an approval rating. The company claims it uses “artificial intelligence” and OTP-based phone authentication to weed out so-called “fake voters”, but none of these claims can be independently verified. These “security measures’ mean the app ends up collecting a huge amount of data about the political preferences of its users—data which, as has been extensively reported by HuffPost India, is extremely valuable to political parties out to manipulate your vote.
Users can also see detailed rankings across parties, states, or constituencies.
Users can also leave feedback for different leaders—in the wake of the controversy between Aatishi and Gautam Gambhir, most of the recent comments have been about these two politicians, although PM Modi also keeps getting comments in the feed.
The app also uses voter preference data to predict party standings (at the time of writing, it’s predicting that 213 seats will go to the BJP), which — some election commission officials feel — mean it is functioning as an opinion poll, which cannot be published when elections are underway.
Is the Neta app allowed to gather this data?
The Election Commission does not think so.
“The company in a full-page advertisement published on March 21 this year in a regional daily has offered a chance to win Rs 10,000 for downloading the app on mobiles. This is an example of ‘inducement’ and is prohibited under section 123 of RPA,” said Dr S Karuna Raju, Chief Election Officer, Punjab.
“The app is silently conducting surveys, publicising contestants and sharing voters preferences with third parties which is again prohibited during the model code of conduct,” Raju told HuffPost India.
In 2019, much has changed, and the EC now has to grapple with the problem of social media and undeclared political advertising; advertising that goes on during the official silence periods; and mass messaging through “dark” platforms like WhatsApp. With the Neta app, there’s the question of voter data being gathered, and also the possibility of people’s votes being exposed.
Mittal, however, says that this does not apply to what his company is doing.
The company emailed HuffPost India the following statement in response to our questions:
The app is a real time aggregator of people’s ratings of their leaders on the platform, just like Zomato allows people to rate restaurants.
It does not aim to predict election results - that requires deeper statistical analysis including techniques like sampling, normalisation etc. which we do not offer on the app.
The idea behind the app is to offer our leaders and their parties a feedback on their performance and I think we have been able to do it fairly successfully with over 2.5 crore people rating their leaders and 77 lakh participating by putting up stories and messages for their leaders.
That said, with large number of people rating their leaders on the app, it does inadvertently end up offering a sense of which parties and candidates may be doing well across constituencies. However, that is purely coincidental and besides the objective.
Monetising user data
Although Mittal is clear that Neta does not sell voter data to politicians, he agrees that the business makes it money from user data, and voting preferences. However, it mostly does this through a series of deals with various media houses, which use Neta’s data and analysis for TV panels, and infographics, among other things.
“When I was living in the US, I launched a B2B company called Outgrow, which is a polling tech company,” Mittal explained. “It provided tech to publishers like NYT, and the Guardian and others. We did a lot of data analytics work. But I wanted to come back to India, to be closer to my parents. So that was kind of the genesis of Neta, because we wanted to bring the same kind of expertise here. And I thought that the way to do it was to let people give ratings, the way you’re used to on all apps now.”
“We were never meant to be an election app but an accountability app, and we’re not thinking about 2019 but the next five years.”
“Ratings make Uber drivers better, so why not our politicians, right?” he added. “And in the future we want to be able to see who are the political candidates who are actually doing good work, and solving the issues people want, and parties could use that to give tickets to the right people.”
Right now, according to Mittal, Neta is offering data to TV channels for panels and analysis. It also closed a deal with the Times of India in March, to provide data, infographics, and analysis for the elections. According to a VCCircle report, this is part of a series of deals with media groups that’s worth $10 million.
“The major thing right now is how we can monetise the data by working with the media, for opinion polls and exit polls,” Mittal said. “Politicians will only see the data that any user would see on the app, we don’t share any insights with them directly because we want to maintain our credibility and independence.”
Behind the curtain though, there’s a lot of data that is available. Mittal says this information is anonymised, although experts have shown how demographic information such as location information, age, and so on can allow a fair degree of targeting. Meanwhile, Neta can track the different areas of interest that people show—for example, Mittal explained over the phone, the company can track overlapping areas of interest, so it can see what people who felt negatively about the Rafale deal are saying about demonetization, for example.
“We’re still figuring out how this can grow. Right now we’re just building credibility and making it very clear that we’re businessmen, we’re not connected to any party,” said Mittal. “We were never meant to be an election app but an accountability app, and we’re not thinking about 2019 but the next five years. And while we’re not tracking any user data, the data that we do have, it’s not editorial, it reflects what all the people are saying, without any personally identifiable information.”
However, in its FAQs, the company says this about sharing data with third parties: “Absolutely not. We do not share sensitive political data with anyone. In fact, all of our data is encrypted and even our team does not have access to it!”