The Centre on Friday told the Supreme Court it has withdrawn its notification proposing a social media hub, which some allege could become a tool to monitor online activities of citizens, and would undertake a complete review of its social media policy.
A bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra considered the submission of Attorney General K K Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, that the notification was being withdrawn, and disposed of petitions challenging it.
Venugopal also told the bench, comprising Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, that the social media policy would be reviewed completely by the government.
The bench was hearing a petition filed by Trinamool Congress 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 the 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 Request For Proposal. 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 e-mail contents, she said.
On June 18, the apex court refused to an urgent hearing on the plea seeking to stay the ministry’s move to set up a ‘Social Media Communication Hub’ that would collect and analyse digital and social media content.
In May this year, the Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited, a public sector undertaking under the ministry, had floated a tender to supply software for the project.
The legislator from Karimpur constituency of West Bengal said the SMCH “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 SMCH 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 e-mails.
“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”.