When Rajyavardhan Rathore became the Minister for Information & Broadcasting, he mostly evaded the topic of social media. “Social media is totally independent,” he said. “And in any case, social media doesn’t even come under this ministry.”
But just over two weeks ago, the ministry posted a tender saying that it was going to set up a social media communications hub. So far, so good. But then, the tender, which was first reported by Scroll.in, went on to say that the bidder must be able to monitor Twitter, Instagram, some blogs, and YouTube. It also said that the tool that is created for this purpose must keep track of key influencers and be able to archive and retrieve older conversations. And to top it all off, it will have to create a ‘360-degree’ view of everyone it tracks and create ‘personalized responses’.
And it will have to do all this for a cool ₹47 crore.
Right down to natural language processing and ‘sentiment analysis’, the tender has all the makings of an intent to surveil. Days after news of the tender broke on Scroll, the Internet Freedom Foundation* sent the ministry a legal notice demanding that the tender be withdrawn. “Putting the entire online population of internet users in India who invariably will use the social media [sic] platforms and email for communication,” the notice warned, “will have a tremendous chilling effect on their fundamental right to free speech and expression.”
The notice warned that IFF would resort to “seek remedies in accordance with the law” if the ministry didn’t cancel the tender.
Here are a few features of what the MIB wants from bidders, as described in the 66-page tender:
— The hub needs to create a “analyze as well as visualize large volumes of data across diverse digital platforms in real time”.
— It needs to “listen” and respond to online trends on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, complaint websites, and email.
— On top of Indian languages, it needs to support Chinese, German, French and Arabic content.
— It should provide a visualization of location-based trends.
— Influencer insights should be readily available, and archives of conversations should be kept and be searchable
— Provide tools for identifying and managing crises in real time
— Crawl social media and the internet at large for ‘data mining’
— Create analytic reports and generate predictive analyses
The document then goes on to describe, in lengthy detail, the specifications for achieving the above goals.
It is not uncommon for private companies to keep an eye on the internet. Watching emerging trends and public conversations can be very useful for making business decisions. But that’s exactly why the same cannot apply to governments. The interests of governments are radically different when it comes to monitoring the internet. Private companies usually have little to gain by profiling individual users and everything they say online, especially at scale.
When a government implements such monitoring, especially in the scale that the I&B Ministry’s tender describes, what follows is fertile grounds for mass surveillance. It might seem comforting to assume that this tender buzzwords-ed itself until it stumbled into mass surveillance. But the detail with which it has described its requirements of keeping a track of both social media, email, and generally the whole internet and its users in India, means just one thing. And that is that mass surveillance is both the natural consequence and possibly the end-goal.
* The author of this article interned and volunteered for the Internet Freedom Foundation in the past. Nikhil Pahwa, MediaNama’s editor, is a founding member and chairman of IFF.