The Supreme Court Friday issued notice to the Centre on a plea challenging its proposed move to set up a Social Media Communications Hub, observing that “we will be moving to a surveillance state” if every tweet and WhatsApp message is monitored.
The remark came from Justice D Y Chandrachud, who was on a bench with Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice A M Khanwilkar, when the petition filed by Trinamool Congress legislator Mahua Moitra came up before it.
The matter will now be heard on August 3. The bench also asked Attorney General K K Venugopal to assist it in the matter.
Appearing for Moitra, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi said the government had already issued the Request For Proposal (RFP) and that the object of the project was to “monitor social media content”. The court was also told that tenders would be opened on August 20.
The petition said the RFP was issued by the Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Ltd (BECIL), a public sector enterprise under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It invited proposals to select a bidder for the supply, installation, testing and commissioning (SITC) of a software tool for the hub of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
Moitra said that she was active on several social media platforms and had a “large social media following” and contended that the hub was “being set up with the clear objective of surveillance of activities of individuals like herself on social media platforms”.
The petition alleged that though the stated aim of the project was to enable the government to understand the impact of social media campaigns on welfare schemes and improve the reach of such campaigns, the project had two aspects — “mass surveillance apparatus that aims at collecting and analysing huge volumes of data, and profiling people based on that” and “utilising this data to predict the mood of people online and issue responses, including those targeted at individuals or groups”.
“The social media analytical tool is expected to ‘listen’ to conversations on all major digital channels, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr, as well as blogs and news channels” and “.also to be able to monitor email,” the petition said.
“Such intrusive action on the part of the government,is not only without the authority of law, but brazenly infringes her fundamental right to freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Such action of the government also violates her right of privacy,” the petition contended.
Stating that the “entire scheme/scope of the SMCH as sought to be set up through the impugned RFP is violative of Articles 14, 19(1)(a) and 21”, Moitra prayed that the RFP along with its “addenda and corrigenda” be “quashed and set aside as being arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional”.