Big Brother is Watching

On its face the official circular for the registration of Whatsapp groups looks ridiculous: there are millions of whatsapp groups in Valley which share news and information around. Now, the order issued first by the  District Magistrate in Kupwara in the thick of the Handwara mayhem  and later reiterated by the  Divisional Commissioner Asgar Samoon obliges them all to get the official registration before their members can legally post their messages. Leave aside the stupefyingly gargantuan nature of registering all these groups – which given the complicated operation of the social media technology is next to impossible – the very thought that there is such a regulation is stultifyingly ambitious.  And repressive too.   What is Whatsapp? It is the modern form of conversation, speech. How can it be regulated? Or should it be regulated? The twin order of the Divisional Commissioner and the Kupwara district magistrate therefore raise some troubling concerns. And the most profound of all the concerns: the fallout of the orders on the right to free speech in the state. There is no question that the orders run afoul of the freedom of speech and right to privacy guaranteed under the constitution. The government just can’t go around seeking registration of all the whatsapp groups. It is like the state breathing down every individual’s neck.

The orders were issued following the unrest in Valley over the killings of five persons – four youth and one elderly woman – in Handwara after an alleged molestation bid on a minor school girl. Soon after the incident, a video statement of the girl denying she had been molested went viral on whatsapp and later on the social sites.   The wisdom behind the orders is, therefore, to stem the spread of the rumours which can cause widespread trouble.  

But while the intention might appear salutary, it isn’t so in effect. The move is an attempt at an outrageous government overreach. It is a bid to eavesdrop the most private conversations people would want to have among their family and friend circles. 

And as many experts have pointed out the government’s whtasapp orders betray ignorance of the Constitutional protection of free speech and the Information Technology Act. It is also funny to hold the whatsapp admins responsible for the content in the groups. For they are by no means more important than the members on the group. They can just add or remove people; they can’t control the content people post on the group. And yes what about many other apps that also allow their users to create groups. Does it mean communication through them doesn’t require registration? The questions like these haven’t been answered.

It will be interesting to know that  under which law the government has issued the orders. And whether there is any law at all which gives government the authority to call for the registration of the whatsapp groups. At the same time, government’s stated defense that the whatsapp registration is intended to prevent the spread of rumours hardly holds water: for, if it were so, the government would by now have identified and punished the person or persons who shot the Handwara girl’s video, with her face uncovered, and actively circulated it on whatsapp. 



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