The Government of India is putting the finishing touches on a social media policy, which will monitor anti-national propaganda and attempt to arrest the spread of malicious rumors, reports PTI. Apparently, the government already has a set of dos and don’ts which it now wants to turn into formal guidelines. However, it’s not clear if the government has included social media platforms in the process, and also what exactly does social media encompass.
We mention this because an earlier Ministry of Communications and Information Technology approved a framework and guidelines for use of social media for government organizations and defined social media to include social networking platforms like Facebook, microblogging platforms like Twitter, blogs maintained by individuals, video blogs and video sharing platforms like YouTube, and Wikipedia. And in July 2016, while informing civil servants and officers that they were strictly not allowed to criticize the government on social media, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp were named.
However, what’s even more important is a clear definition of what the government considers anti-India or anti-national, because the implementation of the policy will depend on it. The term anti-national has been debated and dissected at length over the past few months, so we will not go deeper into it at this point.
The report also mentioned that the government is still in the process of finalizing the infrastructure requirements for implementing the policy, especially the manpower and technical requirements.
It’s worth noting that back in 2015, barely three weeks after the Supreme Court scrapped Section 66A of the IT Act for being unconstitutional, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) was considering bringing it back in a slightly different avatar. The home ministry had set up a committee to look into how national security concerns could be accommodated in the IT Act, and representatives from the Intelligence Bureau, National Investigation Agency and Delhi Police were part of the committee. This committee was supposed to submit its report within a month’s time, but nothing has been heard since.
Will this replace Internet shutdowns?
Ever since Section 66A was struck down, the government has gravitated towards Internet shutdowns. There were 20 state government-imposed Internet shutdowns in 2017 alone. This dramatic increase followed the Supreme Court’s ruling which upheld the districts and states’ right to ban mobile Internet services for maintaining law and order, in February last year.
However, as we had pointed out earlier Internet shutdown is a tricky business: While on the one hand it results in increase in anxiety among citizens, especially in the aftermath of a violent incident, because they are unable to communicate with friends and family, as well as dispel rumours (as opposed to spread rumours, which seems to be the government’s favourite catchphrase). On the other hand, security forces also depend on Whatsapp as it’s the most secure communication tool at their disposal, and an Internet shutdown prevents them from operating effectively as well.
Law Commission recommendations
Just a few months back, the Law Commission recommended certain changes to the CRPC (Code of Criminal Procedure) and the IPC (Indian Penal Code) which could potentially have a debilitating effect on freedom of expression, and impact messages sent via digital platforms.
It needs to be pointed out that morality and decency are subjective matters and trying to control online activity using these parameters is as ambiguous as it gets. But instead, let’s look at this from a different perspective. A toned down version of Section 66A, irrespective of what the new name attached to it maybe, will be as dangerous as the one struck down by the SC, because it will once again provide those in power the opportunity to dictate online conversations. As Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman had said in the SC’s order, “66A is invalid and it cannot be saved even if the government says it won’t abuse the law.”