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A looming threat goes away, for now

It was ironic that after having taken Cambridge Analytica and social media platforms to task for what they did with user data, the government was trying to entrust the same task to a private company winning the hub contract

The Big Brother has finally relented, rather has been forced to. The Modi government has told the Supreme Court it was dropping the plan to set up a ‘Communication Hub’ to monitor the social media activities of the citizens following a storm over the draconian move, which the court itself likened to an attempt to create a ‘surveillance state’. The judges seemed to agree with the general perception that the plan amounted to snooping on citizens’ social media activities in violation of their right to privacy.

The government had sought to justify the move on the ground that it would help in understanding the views of the citizens on various programmes and also help inculcate nationalist feelings. But the task as described in a tender document floated for creating the hub indicated a more diabolical intent. The successful bidder was supposed to “collect digital media chatter from all core social media platforms as well as digital platforms like news, blogs and forums”. It was also meant to support “easy management of controversial logs of each individual with capabilities to merge it across channels to help facilitate creating a 360-degree view of the people who are creating a buzz across various topics.”

Curiously, the move for the monitoring mechanism followed the government raising snooping charges against Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. The government had asked the two entities to clarify whether personal data of Indian users had been compromised, and sought to know from Facebook the specific steps it proposed to take to prevent any misuse of personal data. The action came amidst reports that Facebook or its related or downstream agencies were utilising data harvesting to manipulate the Indian electoral process.

It was ironic that after having taken Cambridge Analytica and social media platforms to task for what they did with user data, the government was trying to entrust the same task to a private company winning the hub contract. It was feared that the company would employ media persons on a contractual basis to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the government and upload their observations onto the technology platform specifically created for such snooping. So there was no escape for any one.

While the government has told the Supreme Court that it was dropping the idea, it is too early to conclude that the threat has disappeared altogether. Attorney general KK Venugopal told the court that the Centre was withdrawing the notification proposing the creation of such a hub so it can conduct a complete review of the policy. Given the overall approach of the Modi government towards media, one can’t be sure what the review would entail. For all one knows, the dreaded hub could stage a come-back any time, if the government can help it.

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