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Social media helpline of Mumbai Police might not be a good idea

What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they'll keep being wrong

Mumbai police has set up Mumbai Cyber Lab (MCL) and a helpline to monitor inaccurate social media posts that might lead to communal violence like in Pune. (hat tip: Mihir Bijur)

The Times of India writes that you can call or SMS the information to 9820810007 to “alert about any wrong internet /posting related matters.” The objective is to take action on the offensive information before it does further damage.

What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they'll keep being wrong

What is offensive?

While the move might be well intentioned, this is Mumbai police we are talking about. The same guys who arrested two women in 2012 for questioning on Facebook a bandh after the death of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. Can such an organization distinguish between posts that are offensive and criticism? Maharashtra Police had also warned people against liking objectionable content online.

A police force with no clear directive apart from “stop spread of misinformation” can use these powers to curb free speech rather than to curb violence that may arise from such incorrect information.There needs to be a law or even a directive limiting the sort of situations such a team should interfere in. For example, criticizing the actions of a politician based on inaccurate information might be offensive to the followers of his political party. If members of this offended party behave like hooligans and goes on a violent spree then will the police hold the rioters accountable? Or will they blame it all on the alleged social media update and let these offenders off the hook?

Ultimately what it boils down to are Indian sensibilities. What is offensive for one person might not be for another. Some people might be offended by religious jokes while others might be able to take it.

How do they plan to do it?

We don’t know how Mumbai police plans to take down inaccurate information.In case misinformation is spread over WhatsApp, the police could technically follow the flow of information since these messages are sent from verified phone numbers. However in case of Facebook or Twitter updates, it is more complicated. For example, it still hasn’t received the IP address and proxy server details that were used to upload information against two techies in Pune from Facebook.

Even if an original post is taken down, nothing is ever deleted from the Internet. To give an example, even if an offending tweet is taken down, the screenshots of the same will continue to circulate on WhatsApp and Facebook. That’s the thing, it is not the link that is always shared it is a screenshot of these tweets. That’s what makes it so easy to create fake tweets as well.

What should police do?

One of the responsibilities of members of the Indian Police Service is to: “Inculcate integrity of the highest order, sensitivity to aspirations of people in a fast-changing social and economic milieu, respect for human rights, broad liberal perspective of law and justice and high standard of professionalism.” Yes, that’s all it takes to distinguish between what is offensive and criticism. We hope that the police force approaches these issues with more sensibility than they have in the past.

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