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 and user accounts of different social media platforms. His contention: for easier detection of cybercrime cases.
When the case was taken to the Supreme Court, with a transfer petition from social media giant Facebook, it was no more a matter of linking Aadhaar to social media accounts but also about how far social media firms can go to protect privacy of users from probe agencies.
On Tuesday, against Facebook’s petition to transfer the case to the apex court, the top court said the hearing may continue in HC but the latter cannot pass final orders.
An RTI and animal rights activist, 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. “A year after the Jallikattu protests (in January 2017), I was appointed member of a Jallikattu monitoring committee by the Animal Welfare Board of India to see if there were incidents of animal abuse. At the time, I was attacked and defamed on some social media pages for being part of that committee. This was one of the reasons that made me file this petition,” Rubin said.
He said he feels “strongly” that these social media platforms should share information with probe agencies about account users who use those platforms to intimidate, abuse or threaten people. “At least two of my complaints to the cyber crime department did not help me to find the culprit,” he said.
In court, the Tamil Nadu government contended that social media giants such as Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, was non-responsive and non-cooperative to queries from probe agencies.
In April this year, the government submitted that WhatsApp was not cooperating in the probe of even the Pollachi sexual abuse case, in which tens of women in the eponymous town of Coimbatore district turned victims of an organised racket of sexual abuse, blackmail and extortion. WhatsApp insisted that any request for information should be made in the appropriate manner – in the format prescribed by the Union Home Ministry. The company also said it cannot produce the content shared through its platform with the government, as all messages come under an end-to-end encryption policy.
At one point, the state government said that a final decision cannot be left to social media firms but is for the State to decide. The Madras HC division bench also asked why the government should not ban social media companies that do not cooperate with law enforcement agencies.
During the hearings in May 2018, the court, wondering whether it can issue an order to link people’s Aadhaar with their social media accounts, sought an interactive meeting between social media firms and the state Chief Secretary to reach a consensus on sharing information in cybercrime cases.
In July this year, an IIT-Madras professor, V Kamakoti, countered the contention about encryption and told the court that it is technically possible to add an “original” identification tag to messages on WhatsApp even with the encryption if the company makes a change in its product design by including the phone number of the “originator” of a message.
Prof Kamakoti, who was assisting Madras HC in the case, also said WhatsApp cannot claim to be a privacy-centred entity when its users are able to freely send messages to anyone without her/his consent.