On 30 May 2018, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) sent a legal notice to the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting over the ‘invitation to tender’ recently issued for a ‘Social Media Communication Hub’. The government has requested contractors to submit proposals by 16 June to create software that can be used to collect information on individuals from their social media accounts and internet usage and target them with personalised campaigns to maintain positive opinions.
The IFF, a group of volunteers that advocate for a “free and open internet”, have argued in their notice that the Hub the government plans to set up will become a tool to conduct surveillance of individuals and spread disinformation, which violates our fundamental rights to privacy and free speech. As a result, they have requested the Minister for Information & Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore to intervene and immediately halt the process. If not, they will approach the courts.
The IFF rose to prominence in 2015 for their SavetheInternet campaign urging the protection of net neutrality. The group includes lawyers like Apar Gupta and Raman Jit Singh Chima, as well as technical experts like Nikhil Pahwa and Rohin Dharmakumar.
Government posted a lengthy tender online where they mentioned India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said it wants a company to provide analytical software and a team of at least 20 professionals to “power a real-time New Media Command Room.” According to tender, they should monitor Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Internet forums and even email in order to analyze sentiment, recognize “Fake news,” disseminate information on behalf of the government and inject news and social media posts with a “Positive slant for India’’.
Problematic areas in HUB
The notice expresses concerns about the following features of the project that the government wants to set up:
Monitoring of Social Media: The software to be created is supposed to be able to collect “digital chatter” all major social media platforms, which can be used to create a 360-degree view of people “who are creating buzz across various topics”.
Predictive and Sentiment Analysis: The data collected by the software is supposed to be analysed with the purpose of moulding public perception in a positive manner, inculcating nationalistic feelings and improving perceptions of India around the world.
Knowledge Management System and Private Data Centre: All the data collected is to be stored in a single database, which will include profiling of conversations and individuals.
Why the Hub is Unconstitutional
There is no statutory instrument or legislation which can be used to justify the creation of the Social Media Communication Hub. According to the request for proposal, the Hub is supposed to fall under the government’s ‘New Media Cell’. However, the New Media Cell was set up by a notification in 2013, not a law, and the activities of the Hub are beyond the scope of that notification as well.
The request for proposal expressly says that the Hub is to conduct mass surveillance on social media and even goes so far as to say information from emails is to be collected. The IFF has argued that this cannot be a legitimate state goal, and does not satisfy the tests of proportionality and necessity required for any such programme as per the Supreme Court’s landmark right to privacy judgment in 2017.
The aim of building a 360-degree view of influencers on social media, and the maintenance of a database, violate multiple aspects of the fundamental right to privacy and includes no protections for individuals or their data.
India still doesn’t have a data protection law, and the government’s plans for the Hub include no oversight or accountability in any case. In addition to this, the specifications for the software include the ability to erase and manipulate logs, which would allow even misuse of the Hub to be protected from scrutiny.
“Putting the entire online population of internet users in India who invariably will use the social media platforms and email for communication will have a tremendous chilling effect on their fundamental right to free speech and expression,” the foundation said in its letter.