A Supreme Court Bench has taken up a petition by Trinamool Congress legislator Mahua Moitra challenging a proposed move by the Centre to set up a Social Media Communications Hub. On Friday, the court sent notice to the government and observed that “we will be moving to a surveillance state” if every tweet and WhatsApp message is monitored. Ahead of the next hearing on August 3, a look at what the proposed hub is meant for, and why concerns are being expressed:
What is the proposed Social Media Communications Hub?
It will be a platform that will allow the government to keep an eye on all social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn etc — and try to get a sense of the public mood, with the capability to track any individual’s public posts across platforms. In tender advertisements issued twice, the Ministry for Information & Broadcasting has described the hub as one that will have the ability to “collect digital media chatter from all core social media platforms as well as digital platforms like news, blogs and forums” and provide real-time “insights, metrics and other valuable data” to the government. It will aim to gauge and analyse the public sentiment towards various government policies and announcements, and track influencers. The tender documents specify that the platform should be able to easily manage “conversational logs with each individual” through various social media channels and facilitate in creating a “360 degree view of the people who are creating buzz across various topics”. The platform should be able to support English, Hindi, Urdu, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil and Chinese, German, French and Arabic, the documents say.
What is the status of the proposal?
The first tender, advertised in January calling for private players to set up the government project, did not find enough bidders and was scrapped. It was announced for a second time in April, with August as the deadline to submit bids.
Is this the first time the government is doing this?
In terms of setting up an independent unit to track conversation across social media platforms, it is a new idea. But the government has been using other methods to assess social media trends. For example, the New Media Wing of the I&B Ministry has been assisting various arms of the government in keeping an eye on activities on various social media platforms. In 2015, The Indian Express had reported how the Ministry of External Affairs and the Intelligence Bureau, starting mid-2014, had been taking help from the New Media Wing.
This year, The Indian Express reported how the I&B Ministry tested in real-time another tool to track public sentiment, first during the release of the Economic Survey and then during Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s Budget speech. Ministry sources had then said that the tool would help the government analyse and assess the impact of various policies ahead of the 2019 elections.
What are the concerns around the Social Media Hub?
Apart from the concerns raised in the petition in the Supreme Court, leading to the observation about India “moving to a surveillance state” if every tweet and WhatsApp message is monitored, concerns have also been expressed about legality, privacy and freedom of speech. The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), which works towards free and open Internet and issues of privacy, had sent a legal notice to the I&B Ministry on May 30 describing the project “to surveil social media” as “illegal and unconstitutional” and “being contrary to the right to privacy and freedom of speech and expression”. The notice claimed that apart from having a chilling effect on free speech, the tool will also be used to “profiling and databasing” of social media users and lacks oversight and accountability.
IFF said there is no “underlying statutory basis” for creation of such a tool and it would be an extralegal entity. It quoted from the 2017 SC judgment upholding privacy as a fundamental right, saying, “If the posting on social media websites is meant for only a certain audience, which is possible as per tools available, then it cannot be said that all and sundry in public have a right to somehow access that information and make use of it.”
Do critics think it can be misused by the government?
The tender document mentions “response management” as part of the hub’s scope of work. This, the IFF states in its notice to the I&B Ministry, has the “capacity for misinformation and propaganda”. It states that “given that there is an absence of any legislative backing, any legal definition of purpose and broad objectives… there is every possibility of abuse”. Quoting another SC judgment, it said, “One-sided information, disinformation, misinformation and non-information all equally create an uninformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce”.
What is the government’s stand?
The government contests the idea that the tool will be used for mass surveillance or snooping. Talking to The Indian Express in May, Minister of State (independent charge) for I&B Rajyavardhan Rathore said that a lot of companies use such tools to find out what is the public sentiment around a particular product. “Snooping means knowing something which is not public, which is private… They are not extracting anything which is private. Social media is a public domain and anything that is put in public domain they are just assessing that.” He said that on various occasions, the government wants to know what the public feels about it. “And even before this tender was floated the government was analysing public sentiment. All these stories about snooping into the emails are absolutely wrong.”