The government may have withdrawn its controversial Social Media Communications Hub, but an NDTV report has revealed that this was actually its seventh attempt to closely monitor its citizens’ social media.

Six other tenders were issued since 2014 by different parts of the government, all of them seeking to keep an eye on what users were posting on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Those tenders are (below links are PDFs):

  1. TENDER NOTICE FOR SOCIAL MEDIA MONITORING SERVICES (TWITTER) FOR THE EXTERNAL PUBLICITY AND PUBLIC DIPLOMACY DIVISION, MINISTRY OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS
  2. Request for Proposal For Selection of Social Media Agency, UIDAI
  3. Request for Proposals invited for selection of agency at Social Media Communication Hub for services related to 24 x 7 function, operation and maintenance for the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India and Supply, installation, testing of software
  4. Request for Proposals invited for selection of agency at Social Media Communication Hub for Monitoring services related to 24 x 7 function, operation and maintenance for the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India and Supply, installation, testing of software.
  5. Invitation for Expression of Interest for empanelment of agency for Monitoring and Response Management Services related to 24 x 7 function, operation and maintenance of Social Media Communication Hub of different Ministries/Govt. Organizations
  6. National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology (NIELIT) Request for Proposal for Selection of Social Media Agency

Of special note are the BECIL tenders — BECIL is the I&B Ministry subsidiary that issued the tender on creating a Social Media Communications Hub. In light of these newly surfaced tenders, this tender seems to be just a part of the Ministry’s larger strategy to monitor posts on social media. It’s unclear whether these tenders received enough bids for the projects to go through, or if they were delayed frequently due to a lack of applications, as the withdrawn one was.

The withdrawn tender

Here are a few features of what the MIB wanted from bidders, as described in the 66-page tender:

— The social media communications 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.

Last month, I&B minister Rajyavardhan Rathore said that the social media communications hub tender issued by a subsidiary did not violate privacy. “There is no proposal to invade an individual’s right to privacy, and the right to freedom of speech,” Rathore added.

The petition against the Social Media surveillance

However, Trinamool Congress legislator Mahua Moitra’s petitioned the Supreme Court with concerns over the capacity for mass surveillance. The tender, the petition points out, is seeking the ability for the ministry to “Monitor individual social media user/account”, a phrase that is used in the actual tender. The tender seeks detailed individual information about ‘influencers’ and emerging trends. “The very act of surveillance in and of itself constitutes a “restriction” on free speech and expression,” the petition argues. “If a man is shadowed, his movements are obviously constricted,” the petition quoted a Supreme Court judgement as observing.