Mahua Moitra, a member of the State Legislative Assembly, West Bengal, has filed a Public Interest Litigation under Article 32 in the apex court for quashing the Request for Proposal floated by Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited, a Public Sector Undertaking on behalf of Ministry of Information and Technology. The impugned RFP was floated to invite bidders who would be responsible for Installation, Testing and Commissioning (SITC) of Software and for the supply, service, support, operation and maintenance of a Social Media Communication Hub (SMCH). In a conversation with The Leaflet, she explains what is SMCH, why did she file the petition, the court’s reaction to the petition and how does it infringe on the fundamental rights of the citizen of the country.
The Leaflet: What is this Social Media Communication Hub (SMCH) and why did you file a petition against it?
Mahua Moitra: The Government on April 25 took this RFP (Response for Proposal) via its informational broadcasting on its website and they put out the request proposal along the website via BECIL (Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited), which is obviously a PSU (Public Sector Undertaking) under the government and what it has tried to do is quite diabolical. They have done this in a very surreptitious manner and are quite like the cattle rules which they put out in the Ministry of Environment. It is the same kind of modus operandi that you see. This is something even if they are thinking, it requires huge public consultation, much thinking. What do they do? They put this out on the website and direct request for proposals (RFP) for setting up a social media communication hub (SMCH).
Now if you read the RFP, the language is absolutely frightening. It is trying to do two things. On one side, it is trying to create a framework for surveillance of all citizens across all social media platforms so be it email, be it WhatsApp, or be it blogs. Everything. On this other side, what it is trying to do is it is asking the service provider who will be the winner in the RFP to come and help the government, to do predictive analysis about how you can influence people and how you can inculcate “nationalistic feelings”. So, this is a very scary thing.
So let’s look at the first part, the surveillance mechanism part.
It tells you very clearly the mass collection “it will create a technology platform that will collect media chatter from all core social media platforms”, and it will have the capability to listen for and collect data from not only social media platforms but also from emails. So they will be basically snooping on just about everything, anything we put in electronic content. The third thing it says is that it should “see historic conversation of each user in a reverse chronological manner”. The fourth thing that it says is that it should have “the ability to crawl social media and world wide web for data mining. Crawling should be comprehensive and should cover all major websites and social media handles”. So they are actually laying it out, they are not making any secret of it.
We come to the second part, it says that the purpose is clearly set out in the RFP, in the part title is “predictive analysis” and it says “how could the public perception be molded in a positive manner of the country, how can nationalistic feelings be inculcated in the masses” and it says that they want to create a private data center which is going to be.. a command center. So they want to have a war room and they will have 760 social media executives.
These are not going to be government employees, they are going to be contractual employees of any agency who wins this bid, and they will be in all the 760 districts. Each district will have one person. This person will feed real time data of all this user to the real-time hub which will then take action. So this is exceedingly frightening. So this is what the RFP is about and this is why I decided to approach the Supreme Court because it is the highest court of the land. And I think this is something which concerns every citizen and with internal penetration, it is the people like my parents, younger people, older people, everyone on Facebook and internet will use it for the most innocuous purposes. Not every statement has a sinister purpose to it, and if the government is snooping in on everything we can see how this government has previously tried to do this and this is not a step in that direction.
So when we approached the Court, we approached them during the vacations, they said come back after the vacations, and it was listed today in the Chief Justice’s Court. It was Justice Khanwilkar, the Chief Justice, and Justice Chandrachud. Justice Chandrachud very early (sic) when my counsel Dr. Manu Singhvi stood up to speak, this was about WhatsApp and text messages being monitored and this was a surveillance state. So they viewed it with the same importance that I think it deserves and they issued a notice to the Centre, so we served the notices today. They also said the senior law officer of the government preferably, the Attorney General should be there on behalf of the Government and assist the Court in understanding what the Government really means and this will come up again on August 3.
So let’s see as this is a very positive first day. Obviously, we’ve got to see this till the end. What I think is we have succeeded in doing is making everyone aware of this because what was there is not something by which you and I will be affected by, but we do not have idea of the enormity of it, and so this is something at least as a result of this, people are talking about across all platforms. The media is covering, the journals are covering it, so it makes regular citizens aware of what this government is acting about real infringement in light of Puttaswamy Judgment, is an infringement of the right of public liberty.
We don’t have data protection laws for this country. Sri Krishna Committee Report is still not out. In the absence of data protection in this country, in light of the Puttaswamy judgment, it says that we have a fundamental right, privacy is a fundamental right, this completely flies in the face of all of this and I think that if we follow this to the logical conclusion, we are very hopeful that the Apex Court will grant us relief.
The Leaflet: How do we see it influencing the upcoming elections?
Mahua Moitra: I haven’t looked at this but of course every single citizen of this country apart from someone who is below 18 years of age, is also a voter of this country. If you are trying to influence the people who are using social media by definition you are trying to influence the voters. If you are saying that you want to use this as a tool to inculcate nationalistic feelings, surely you are trying to move it towards a certain party, so yes, of course it could be used for that and other purposes, and of course, it is to influence the citizens who by definition are voters. So yes, that too.
The Leaflet: What do terms like “nationalistic feelings” and “positive slant” mean?
Mahua Moitra: I think this is something that you need to ask the RSS and the government, and it absolutely has no place in the civil discourse and certainly has no place in a democratic country like ours, which is what is the most frightening thing.
The Leaflet: What is the role of Judiciary and the opposition in the present times?
Mahua Moitra: I think we still have a judiciary, some might disagree, I believe that we have an independent judiciary, and I think that the fact that you can go to the judiciary and they can look at this and we can debate it. It is almost impossible to have a civil discourse with the government of the day. They treat the opposition as though we are not relevant. The fact that they came to power only with thirty-three percent of the votes seems to be irrelevant and they seem to think that rest of us don’t matter. So, in that case, all that we got recourse to is the law of the land and the people who will help uphold the law of the land, which is the judiciary. Which is why we are going there.. I think the help of the judiciary and the help of the law of the land is much needed for us.
The Leaflet: The RPF states that “the tool should act as the guiding tool for Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to understand the impact of various social media campaigns conducted on various schemes run by the Government of India.” What do you have to say on that?
Mahua Moitra: No they are not if you see this is not about the social welfare scheme and there is only one line in there. I will point it to you the important thing in the RFP. If it was about social welfare schemes the repeated use of the word competitors. For instance, “software must measure the effectiveness of hashtag campaigns and compare the performance of a brand campaign with competitors.” If you’re the government and if you looking to deliver rations to people who is your competitor? I think that is absolutely ridiculous to me. There is one line in the RFP which talks about I think welfare measures, so I don’t think there is anything to do with this whatsoever. And of course, if you are what is your freedom of expression? You cannot say that on paper that Oh I give you freedom of expression and if you say anti-government I will know about it and will use every tool in my bag to influence you otherwise, then obviously a person is gonna live in an atmosphere of fear of reprisal. They are not going to speak then. And if I cant do that in personal communication when can I ? You cant say publically because somebody might listen into it but if you do in your phone with your own family or your own friends then obviously your personal liberty is infringed about and that’s a very important thing.
The Leaflet: The RFP states that the platform may be used to disseminate content and hence should support publishing features, what does that mean?
Mahua Moitra: They are going to be seeing whatsap groups and use this to influence people and inculcate “nationalistic feelings”. Hypothetically speaking if they feel you and I were speaking, and if they feel that we’re not on the right side of what they consider “nationalistic” and then they will get three nationalistic video and send it to us on whatsapp from other website. So I don’t want to be bombarded by things like that. I am opening myself up to be influenced by whatever parameters they judge, to be fit to judge nationalism. So I think that’s dangerous for personal freedom, liberty, for civil society, for civil discourse and this is very diabolical. It is trying to get in through the backdoor. So I am glad that we at least have got the attention to this issue and people can see it for what it is. That was the first step, and I am glad that we got it, and we obviously got a long way to go and I hope we get there.