At the beginning of 2018, it was reported that the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry is in the process of setting up a social media communication (SMC) hub in each district across the country, to keep the government in the loop for hyperlocal issues and trends.
The eyes and ears of the government, SMCs will be able to monitor in all the major Indian and foreign languages and “extract sentiment and context”.
This idea was already facing flak from various parties when, recently, the government expressed interest in tapping into citizens’ Whatsapp messages. The Supreme Court slammed the Centre, stating this would be like creating a “surveillance state” in the country.
The notice came after the Trinamool Congress (TMC) filed a plea in the SC, questioning the SMC policy, saying this would be a gross violation of people’s privacy. The plea said by monitoring citizens’ social media content, the government was endangering people’s Right to Life.
Social media communication hub: Is govt’s proposed social media tracker a tool to ‘listen’ or snoop?
The timing of this debate is noteworthy as India is already struggling with privacy concerns regarding government handling personal data and information.
A question arises — what is the need for a hub that monitors citizens’ social media activity and at what cost will it be achieved?
What is the government’s plan for the SMC hubs?
With help from this analytical tool, the Centre wishes to track social media movements in every district of the country to predict a global public perception. This can help mould perception into something positive and neutralise negative feelings, if any. An intended use of these hubs would also be to inculcate nationalistic feelings.
This tool will help give social media discussion a positive slant since social platforms today leaves plenty of room for communal hatred and misinformation to seep in. It may also help in tackling fake news. The Centre will gauge people’s reactions to their schemes and strategies.
Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL), a PSU under the I&B ministry, floated a tender asking software companies to come and help in setting up of these hubs.
Why was the idea unpopular?
Citizens and political parties alike came out against this move, calling it an attempt at mass surveillance and a violation of fundamental rights. TMC MLA Mahua Moitra said this would act as a propaganda tool for the government, which is dangerous for civil society.
Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said the government is spending the taxpayers’ money to “snoop on them”.
The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) sent a legal notice to the I&B ministry, saying such a project will only add to the already potent problem of misinformation. It has also said there is no legal justification as to why the government would require this hub.
The notice also says that building a 360-degree view of influencers on social media will violate the fundamental right to privacy.
Next hearing on August 3
The SC has given the Centre two weeks to respond in this matter. The BJP’s stance is that while every individual has right to privacy, with calculated guidelines and regulations, it is possible to have a positive outcome of this project.
The party maintains that the government would never misuse the data provided by people. It is, however, not shocking that people are unwilling to hand over their data to the government.
Ever since Aadhaar came into existence, debate surrounding the government’s failure to protect biometric data of millions of Indians has been ongoing. There had been news of a leak and incompetency of the infrastructure holding this data. Despite assurances from the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the doubt still lingers.
The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandals, due to which personal data of millions of Indians had been breached, was another indication that the government needed to work on handling public data.
This analytical tool has raised concerns since the government is yet to chalk out a law which would ensure data protection or define a process of obtaining individual’s consent before using their data.