Facing flak over surveillance fears, govt drops its plan for social media hub

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Going back on its plan to set up a Social Media Communications Hub after its widespread criticism, the Centre told the Supreme Court Friday that it had withdrawn the proposal. Attorney General K K Venugopal told a bench led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra that the government had withdrawn the Request For Proposal (RFP) inviting tenders for supply of software tools for setting up the hub and was reviewing the entire programme.

The court was hearing a petition by Trinamool Congress legislator Mahua Moitra who contended that the project was intended “to monitor social media content”. When the matter came up for hearing first on July 13, Justice D Y Chandrachud had observed that “we will be moving to a surveillance state” if every tweet and WhatsApp message was going to be monitored.

On Friday, the AG said the government had “taken advantage” of Justice Chandrachud’s words. The Bench recorded the AG’s submissions and disposed of the petition.

Meanwhile, a withdrawal document on Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL), a public sector unit attached to the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, stated that the Request for Proposal issued on April 25 “is hereby…cancelled and withdrawn with immediate effect”.

The Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, when headed by Smriti Irani, had issued two RFPs to set up a specialised entity to trawl social media. Before the RFP in April, BECIL has issued a similar tender in January but it was scrapped because the ministry did not get enough bids. The deadline for the second RFP was August 20. The petition had pointed out that the government had already issued the RFP.

Senior Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi who appeared for Moitra said the tenders would be opened on August 20. The petition said that BECIL had 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 submitted that she was active on several social media platforms, 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 comprises 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.

The “entire scheme/scope of the (Hub) as sought to be set up through the impugned RFP is violative of Articles 14, 19(1)(a) and 21”, Moitra submitted and prayed that the RFP be “quashed and set aside as being arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional”.

Officially, the hub was meant to gauge public mood regarding different government policies. The RFP mentioned that it should be able to easily manage “conversational logs with each individual” through various social media channels and facilitate in creating a “360-degree view of the people who are creating buzz across various topics”.

Through the tender, the I&B Ministry wanted to create a specialised unit to keep an eye on the narrative on social media. The ministry has, in fact, been doing it for a few years. The New Media Wing of the I&B Ministry has been helping the government tap different social media platforms since 2015. After Irani exited the Ministry and NK Sinha retired as I&B Secretary in May, there were doubts about the proposed hub in the ministry.