Centre withdraws social media hub policy, AG informs SC

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New Delhi, August 3: The Centre today told the Supreme Court that it will undertake a complete review of social media policy and has withdrawn its notification proposing a social media hub for the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry.
A bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra considered the submission of Attorney General K K Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, that the proposed decision has been withdrawn and decided to dispose of the petition that had alleged that it was a tool to monitor online activities of citizens.
The government, in its request for proposal (RFP), had invited bids and proposals for selecting an agency to set up a “Social Media Communication Hub’ by the I&B Ministry.
At the outset, Venugopal submitted that the plea has been rendered infructuous as the government has withdrawn its decision and would undertake a “complete review” of the matter.
The bench was hearing a petition filed by TMC MLA Mahua Moitra alleging that the Centre’s social media hub policy was to be used as a tool to monitor social media activities of citizens and should be quashed.
On July 13, the apex court had asked the government whether its move to create such a hub was to tap people’s WhatsApp messages, and observed that it will be like creating a “surveillance state”.
The Trinamool Congress legislator from West Bengal had asked whether the government wants to tap citizens’ messages on WhatsApp or other social media platforms.
Moitra had said the government had issued a RFP. The tender will be opened on August 20 for a software which would do 360 degree monitoring on all social media platforms such WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram and track email contents, she said.
On June 18, the apex court refused an urgent hearing on the plea seeking to stay the ministry’s move to set up the social media hub that would collect and analyse digital and social media content.
In May, the Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL), a public sector undertaking under the ministry, had floated a tender to supply software for the project.
Moitra said the hub “is being set up with the clear objective of surveillance of activities of individuals such as herself on social media platforms”.
In her plea, she said such intrusive action on part of the government was “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 and violated her right of privacy.
Raising concerns, she said the proposed hub seeks to create technology architecture that merges mass surveillance with a capacity for disinformation.
The petition quoted the RFP as saying that the platform should “support easy management of conversational logs with each individual with capabilities to merge it across channels to help facilitate creating a 360 degree view of the people who are creating buzz across various topics”.
It said technology is required to have the capability to listen to and collect data not only from social media platforms but also from emails.
“Specific capabilities mentioned include live search, monitoring, collecting, indexing and storage of personal data including location-based data and meta-data. The ability to monitor individual social media user/account is a specific mandate being given to the service provider,” the PIL said.
WhatsApp, which was recently under fire over fake and provocative messages being circulated on its platform, had informed the IT and Electronics Ministry that it has the ability to prevent spam but blocking can be done only based on user reports since it cannot see the content of private messages.
Detailing the proactive steps to tackle abuse on its platform, WhatsApp had said it retains limited information and is end-to-end encrypted. But this privacy protection has trade-offs in form of “the inability to see problematic content spreading through private conversations on our app”. (PTI)