After backlash, India's government retracts a plan to monitor citizens’ social media activities

  • On 3 August, the central government told the Supreme Court that it was withdrawing a tender for the establishment of a social media communications hub.
  • The proposal, released in April 2018, involved trawling social media websites and collecting of individuals’ data and messages.
  • Last month, the Supreme Court said that this amounted to “surveillance”.
In April 2018, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting released a tender that indicated its intentions to establish a “ New Media Command Room” and build a technology platform to expand its social media operations. The deadline for the submission of bids was in August.

Some of the key activities of this media command centre, which was to comprise 20 social media professionals, included trawling of websites like Facebook and Instagram, the collection of individuals’ data and messages and their subsequent profiling.

In the simplest terms, it amounted to surveillance. The platform was also to be used as a tool to promote the government's messaging and influence public perception.

As expected, there was significant backlash to the BJP administration’s proposal to set up a ‘social media communications hub’. Opposition parties said that it would lead to the curtailment of free speech and suppression of dissent. The government defended the project, saying that the aim was to assess public sentiment with regard to national welfare schemes.

In mid-July, the Supreme Court said that the monitoring of people’s social media activities would make India a “ surveillance state”. The notice came in response to a petition filed against the proposal by Mahua Moitra, an official from the Trinamool Congress party, who claimed that the proposal went against the fundamental right to privacy.

The notice had its intended impact. A few days ago, the Indian government did an about-turn on the social media strategy, deciding that it was wise to avoid skirting controversy in the build-up to national elections next year. On 3 August, the central government told the Supreme Court that it was withdrawing the proposal. However, it did say that it could review the scheme and come up with a modified proposal.

The government’s tentative disavowal of a controversial, potentially undemocratic scheme is a welcome move. This is the second time that it has withdrawn a plan this year. In February 2018, the government was forced to roll back an order that banned the trade and slaughter of cattle after the pain it caused to the livestock industry, especially in terms of exports.
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