Underscoring the need to strike a balance between privacy and security, the Supreme Court Tuesday agreed to hear a plea by Facebook to transfer to the apex court four petitions filed in the High Courts of Madras, Bombay and Madhya Pradesh seeking the “linking of Aadhaar information to social media accounts”.
A Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Deepak Gupta and Aniruddha Bose also issued notices to the Centre, the Tamil Nadu government and other social media platforms including Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube.
The court, however, refused to stay the proceedings before the Madras HC where two PILs are pending but restrained the HC from passing any final order in the matters.
Appearing for the TN government, Attorney General K K Venugopal said the Madras HC had already heard the matter 18 times and it should be allowed to take a final view. Opposing the transfer plea, he contended that this was being sought as the HC had agreed to seek expert opinion about how to trace the originator of a message on WhatsApp.
It all began with a petition by Antony Clement Rubin in Madras High Court last year, seeking the court’s direction to the Central government to make it mandatory for social media users to link their Aadhaar number with email IDs. Rubin said he had a personal reason to take up this legal battle, even though many whistle-blowers and privacy rights activists are unhappy with him for seeking to compromise privacy on social media.
The question is if linking social media to Aadhaar is breach of privacy. Upholding Aadhaar earlier, the SC had disallowed its use by private firms, stating it was contrary to right to privacy.
The AG said the HC was considering the larger question of devising means to prevent the circulation of fake news and fake messages. Advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Facebook, said the platform had not questioned the merits of the order on tracing messages, but had its reservations.
Urging the SC to hear all the matters, senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for WhatsApp, said his client was a global platform and any order would have international ramifications.
On the idea of tracing the originator of a message, Sibal said it was difficult. He also said it would not be prudent to circulate the number of the creator of a message.
Venugopal, however, cited law and order concerns to oppose the submissions and referred to reports about children taking lives allegedly over the Blue Whale challenge, adding that its source had still not established.
Intervening, Justice Gupta said that “there is a conflict between privacy and how the government should run the country when crimes are committed. There has to be a balance… under what condition information can be given and to whom”.
The court said it will not get into the merits of the matter but only decide the question whether the petitions should be transferred.
Facebook’s petition said that relief sought in all the four matters was the same: “to link Aadhaar information to social media accounts, which would potentially allow for the attribution of content to the person who posted such content”.
It said the multiple petitions raise the same question, “which involves the ability of the private entities to use Aadhaar information for authentication”.
The transfer, it added, would help avoid the possibility of conflicting decisions in the different matters. It added that “avoiding conflicting decisions is particularly necessary…to ensure that users are afforded equal privacy protections across India, and to prevent the infeasible situation where the petitioner, which operates a uniform platform throughout India, is ordered to link Aadhaar information only for users in certain Indian states but not the other.”