Move to monitor Social Media given up by Govt

Has the government of the day reached the sensible conclusion that with a General Election round the corner, it might as well abandon the move to set up social media hubs? Is it in this light that the Attorney-General considered it prudent to inform the Supreme Court that it had decided to drop the move to set up a new regulatory authority called the Data Protection Agency?

On August 2, the Supreme Court was informed by the government that it had no intention of pursuing the proposal to create social media hubs across the country, perhaps realizing that they would be tools to monitor online activities of the citizens. The Court was hearing a petition by a Trinamool Congress MLA, Ms. Mahua Moitra, challenging what she called the intrusive moves. The Chief Justice, Mr. Dipak Mishra, and two other judges warned that the proposed monitoring hubs amounted to nothing more than a “surveillance State” and “sheer intrusion into privacy”.

At the outset, the Attorney-General, Mr. K.K.Venugopal, informed the judges that the petition had “become infructuous as we are withdrawing the request for proposal to set up the hubs. Nothing remains to be adjudicated”. The tender document had said that the successful bidder would be required to “collect digital media chatter from all core social media platforms like news, blogs and platforms”.

The submission came 17 days before the tender for the proposed hubs was to be floated. Earlier the Court’s bench had taken strong note of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s plans for the social media hubs and sought its response by August 2. Seeking the Attorney-General’s assistance, it had remarked: “It seems the government wants to tap WhatsApp messages. It will be like creating a surveillance State”. The proposed Social Media Communication Hub was expected to collect and analyse digital and social media content.

Ms. Moitra’s counsel, Mr. Abhishek Singhvi, said the government had issued a request for a proposal for social media hubs and the tender would have been opened on August 20. He argued that “they want to monitor social media content with the help of this social media hub”. The bench commented that it was listing the matter before the opening of the tender and any law officer for the government will assist the court in the matter.

The Broadcasting Engineering Consultants India Limited or BECIL, a public sector undertaking of the I & B Ministry, had then floated the tender to supply the software for the project.

In view of the advanced plans for media hubs and the Supreme Court’s comments, was it appreciated in official circles that such an authority was being perceived as not quite immediately required.

WhatsApp in a crisis. It appears that dropping the move to monitor media hubs, the government is seeking to arm itself with powers to global media platforms such as Facebook, Whats App, Telegram and Instagram in cases where national security and public order face threats. This follows the lynch mobs in several States.

Having reservations about the responses, the responses the Telecom Department is reported to have sought the industry’s views on technical measures that could be used to block mobile apps under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. It lays down the powers with the authorities to issue directions to block public access any information through a computer source.

A letter sent on July18 sought the opinion of the telecom operators, internet service providers’ association cellular service providers’ association of India besides other associations.

Lalit Sethi is a Journalist of long standing and a commentator on Political and Social Issues.