The government’s proposal to launch a Social Media Hub, which would monitor social media, ran into a bit of trouble on 15 July when the Supreme Court remarked that it may result in India becoming a surveillance state.
The problem with monitoring social media in India is that the government can keep a tab on the free movement of information. Under the Telegraph Act of 1885 and the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1933 the airwaves and telecommunications are the sole domain of the Central Government. The legislation provides for methods by which intercepts of data can occur. It is unclear at this stage if amendments to the legislation will be made on launching the social media hub. The key question though at this stage is how does the Social Media Hub tie in with the recently declared fundamental right to privacy?
Further, going by Lawrence Lessing’s argument that “Code is Law”, how practical will it be for the government to be able to go about monitoring data when all the platforms do is focus on the privacy and sanctity of data?
The issue gets even more complicated given that most of the platforms used in India are not situated in India per se. Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are all companies based overseas with their products available in India. Further, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp offer end-to-end encryption, which cannot be intercepted. It is unclear at this point if the government will mandate that end-to-end encryption be prohibited. This may not be unprecedented, as post 26/11 India’s security agencies had demanded they have access to and be able to intercept BlackBerry’s Messaging Service. Apart from issues with the right to privacy, the government will also need to show cause why tapping of communications is legally permissible. As of now, the law in India doesn’t allow for blanket tapping, warrants have to be obtained on a case to case basis before it can be done.
The closest example of this level of social media monitoring is not really seen in the democratic world. The US’s collection of metadata may not suffice for the purpose of the government’s social media hub. Additionally, the government’s purpose for such a hub is highly problematic given the timing.
India is now less than a year from the general elections. The purpose of the hubs in the districts is to ensure that social media takes a positive slant and there is no room for communal hatred. Reading between the lines, it probably means that the point of view on social media will be tapped and modified in order to push the agenda of the person in control of the hub. What this may do to elections is yet unknown, but in light of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, it should give one a moment of pause. Further, India’s Election Commission should raise flags if something like this were to happen.
All parties may eventually benefit from this monitoring while they are in power. However, democracy may be the one at loss. Democracy is vulnerable to manipulated messaging. Recent attempts by the Russians to influence the US Election via social media is another example of how monitoring and targeting messaging can affect the elections.
If monitoring has to be done, it has to be organic monitoring that is accessible to all. Each person must have access to the data that is being monitored and there can be no influence from the government on what is to be shared. This turning of data into a positive slant cannot be acceptable in a free society.
The government may cite national security and fake news as a reason to do so. But the cure is perhaps worse than the disease. When monitored, the market for ideas is unnaturally interfered with. This has consequences for the country’s democratic culture.
India is a proud liberal democracy that is a light among the darkness in a totalitarian Asian continent. It is one of the few democracies outside of the western world that can proudly claim that it is free. Monitoring of content on social media will definitely affect that and therefore must be stopped.