Big Brother State

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Last week,  Ministry of Home Affairs authorised ten different central government agencies to intercept, monitor, and decrypt “any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer”.  The agencies that can now snoop on every single Indian citizen’s computer include the Intelligence Bureau, the Narcotics Control Bureau, the Enforcement Directorate, the Central Board of Direct Taxes, and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence. 

Similarly, agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation; National Investigation Agency, the Cabinet Secretariat (R&AW), the Directorate of Signal Intelligence (only for the service areas of Jammu & Kashmir and North-East and Assam) and the Delhi Commissioner of Police can also check on people’s online activities.

The move has generated deep alarm in the society as it enables the government to blatantly encroach on online privacy. In its defence, the government has said it has done nothing new as the laws to do so already exist. True, the authorisation has been made under Section 69 (1) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and Rule 4 of the Information Technology (Procedure and safeguard for Monitoring and Collecting Traffic Data or Information) Rules. The rules have been in place for almost a decade, but it is only now that the union government has decided to use them to enable the decryption and access to online data. Worse, the multiple agencies tasked to do so are hardly barred by legal restriction to do so.

The draconian measure has understandably generated civil society and political opposition. The civil society groups have expressed fears that India is turning into a surveillance state and that the carte blanche to agencies to hack into people’s computers will have “chilling effect” on freedom of speech in the country. Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, said the move has exposed Modi as “an insecure dictator”. 

What is more, the government now plans to amend the IT rules which will force social media platforms and messaging apps to deploy tools to identify and curb unlawful content. In fact, officials from the Information Technology ministry even held a meeting with senior executives of Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and other companies to discuss the proposed changes in the  IT rules.

The catch-all excuse for this action is the special security requirement for the state that is supposed to warrant early neutering of the sources of trouble. Earlier also, the UPA government had sought to screen the “offensive” content on the social networking sites after having allegedly failed to get these websites to take it off themselves. However, Sibal’s move was similarly contested by the media and public quarters which saw the contemplated measures as a trojan horse attack on the freedom of expression in the country forcing the government to back off.

Most people while agreeing that some stuff on the social sites is incendiary and also that some online activity will have security implications,  are not comfortable with the notion of the government stepping in to clean up the stables. For by the very complex nature of such a cleansing process, there will be no strict redlines for such an action. In J&K, we have already seen the arrests of many youth over the years for posting stuff which is deemed anti-national and designed to incite protests. But no such arrests were ever made for the communal social media messages across the country which led to the lynching of Muslims. 

The issue here is not the objectionable stuff on the internet, of which there is plenty and it is nobody’s case to defend it in the name of the freedom of speech, but the government’s plan to play the judge.  The problem is that this stuff comes in a variety of ways, so it is really a complex business to sift one part of it as offensive while justifying or overlooking another part. More so, when it is a government with its own interests which sits on judgment on this. The best course available with us would be a regulatory body not run by the government.  This makes these social media websites best regulators of the content carried by them. We need to only call upon them to be a bit more pro-active in self-regulation and hold them to account in case they fail to do so.

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