If a PTI report is to be believed, then the Indian government is in the last stages of issuing a social media policy regulation to check “misuse” of the digital medium in what it deems spreading “anti-national propaganda”, and conspire against the nation.
The draft regulations are intended to comb social media for anti-national and possibly “seditious” speech, as well as to keep a tab on national security related correspondence, if sources divulging sketchy details of a top-level meeting held on these issues are to be believed.
The report says that currently there are only rough guidelines – a set of do’s and don’ts – for the social media, but given the emphasis and the tone and tenor of certain erstwhile utterances of Union ministers such as Venkaiah Naidu, the forthcoming regulatory guidelines might have drastic implications for India’s digital freedom of expression.
Of course, there’s a major concern when it comes to spreading rumours on social media, fake news and propaganda via WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and websites dedicated to planting false stories with the intention to tear apart the social fabric. Of late, there have been numerous cases of blatantly fake stories busted on portals such as Altnews, Boom Facecheck and others, which fact-check with a frenzy and do a much-needed social service separating the true from the false.
The ‘anti-national’ bogey
However, can we have a set of rules aimed at eliminating something as fuzzy and undefined as “anti-national” or “anti-India” speech? While misuse of social media is a definite matter of concern, we need to ask what sort of a central government policy can we expect from this regime which is already facing a barrage of criticism for its clampdown on press freedom.
According to the PTI report, “the stake-holders are discussing ways to finalise a policy to help intelligence agencies and security forces effectively deal with any propaganda”. In addition, the report says, “The infrastructure requirements like manpower and technological needs for monitoring of the social media are also being finalised”.
This is, however, not something that wasn’t expected. In fact, guidelines and frameworks have been brewing for about a year now, with the Union ministry of communications and information technology approving something of a regulatory format for social media use among public servants and those working in government offices.
Titled “Guidelines for Use of Social Media by Government”, this 38-page document has this to justify issuing the regulations around social media use in government departments and ministries and bureaucracies:
“[M]any apprehensions remain including, but not limited to issues related to authorisation to speak on behalf of department/agency, technologies and platform to be used for communication, scope of engagement, creating synergies between different channels of communication, compliance with existing legislations etc.”
The platforms listed out in this document include social networking sites such as Facebook, microblogging sites such as Twitter, blogs, video blogs and sharing sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia and affiliated websites. In addition to these benign guidelines, in July 2016, the department of personnel and training (DoPT) took out a proposal forbidding government officials from criticising the government on social media.
Return of Section 66A?
In March this year, Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu, in an interview to India Today TV’s Rahul Kanwal, said that the government is mulling in reworking the sedition law, which, for all practical purposes, must ideally be junked immediately.
While Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had filed a private member Bill last year to read down the sedition law from the Indian Penal Code, it seems the Modi government is finding it more than useful to beat dissenting individuals with, including the bunch that’s popularly known as the “azadi gang”.
However, what’s even more striking is the fact that the government’s utterances and the sources reveal the possibility of a revivification of the done and dusted Section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000, which was struck down by the Supreme Court on March 24, 2015 for being unconstitutional.
Section 66A of the IT Act, notoriously enough, had these clauses:
“Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,—
(a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or
(b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,
(c) any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages,shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.”
It must be noted that the SC had scrapped the “draconian” Section 66A because the court said that it “affected Indian citizens’ right to free speech”. It sad that “what may be offensive to a person, may not be offensive to others”, while striking down the blatantly unconstitutional law brought about by the UPA government, and which was much abused as well, including by West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Shiv Sena as well as others.
Given that the Union ministry of home affairs was mulling bringing it back in April 2015 itself after the SC had scrapped the law, under which citizens could be arrested for violating the social media policy, it is little surprise that once again the murmurs of a toughened social media regulation are doing the rounds.
It’s important to note that this time around, the legislation and regulation are likely to be far more draconian, with the representatives of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the National Investigative Agency (NIA), and Delhi Police present at the meeting. Social media is the new real estate of expression and speech, and tightening the belt is a government too paranoid of conflicting voices, criticism and dissent within its citizenry.
Just like the phrasing of Section 66A, which was vague to the point of lunacy, the latest instance of reviving something similar and perhaps merging it with sedition law, is hardly unexpected.
Internet as right versus internet laws as oppression
According to Internet Freedom Foundation’s initiative #KeepUsOnline, internet shutdowns are becoming the chosen tool of governmental control. In 2017 alone, there have been as many as 20 instances of internet shutdowns, most of them in Kashmir.
India had more internet shutdowns in 2016 than any other country.According to #KeepUsOnline, “State governments were able to shut down the Internet in different parts of the country, affecting millions of people. What’s worse is that these shutdowns happened on some official’s whim with no accountability or oversight.
Internet shutdowns are not only a violation of human rights, they also cost India more than Rs 6000 crores per year. We need to ensure that 2017 sees serious pushback against this practice. State governments justify Internet shutdowns by citing reasons ranging from preventing protests and riots, to stop exam cheating.
But there’s evidence that shows that shutdowns do more harm than good. In 2016, the Bangalore police effectively used Twitter and WhatsApp during the Kaveri river riots to prevent panic and highlight police presence in volatile areas. Then why do Internet shutdowns continue?
When governments shut down the Internet, the real objective is to silence journalists and citizens from criticising the government.” When bundled with internet shutdowns and draconian social media policing, the online world of free communication, expression and spread of ideas among citizens would be seriously imperiled.
Whatever the “new social media policy” that the government is attempting to bring in, we can be sure that it wouldn’t be to expand the ambit of civil rights but to drastically curtail it by limiting and policing free speech on social media. In such a case, we must resist such an unconstitutional move by our own government.