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SC refuses to grant urgent hearing on Centre’s social media snooping project

The Supreme Court has refused to grant an urgent hearing to West Bengal legislator Mahua Moitra had filed a petition challenging the Centre’s move to set up a social media communication hub to analyse and monitor social media content. The Tribune reported that Moitra wanted the apex court to stay the entire project, on grounds that it would violate an individual’s right to privacy. But the court’s vacation bench headed by Justice S Abdul Nazeer refused to grant an urgent hearing to the TMC lawmaker’s petition and asked her counsel Nizam Pasha to either move a high court for an urgent hearing or wait till the end of the SC’s summer vacation.

Last month, the I&B ministry had posted a tender saying that it was going to set up a social media communications hub. The tender 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’.

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.

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IFF notice

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.

* Nikhil Pahwa, MediaNama’s editor, is a founding member and chairman of IFF.

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