The Attorney-General of India KK Venugopal told the Supreme Court yesterday that the Centre was willing to change the terms of the UIDAI’s proposed social media monitoring agency. AGI Venugopal was appearing for the Central government against a petition filed by Trinamool Congress leader Mohua Moitra.

Moitra’s petition demands the quashing of the proposed agency, arguing that the agency’s planned activities amount to surveillance of citizens and violate fundamental rights to equality, life and personal liberty, and violate freedom of speech and expression.

UIDAI’s proposed social media agency

In 2016, the UIDAI sought bids (pdf) for private contractors to set up a social media agency for itself. The contractors’ tasks include developing a social media strategy for UIDAI, run promotional and influence campaigns, among other things. However, the majority of the work related to monitoring content and sentiment, and fishing out and reporting problematic content related to Aadhaar on social media.

Last month, the Central government withdrew a similar tender seeking bids to establish a Social Media Communications Hub. The tender was criticised for instituting a social media surveillance apparatus. The withdrawal came after a previous petition filed by Mitra was heard in the SC.

Apart from the withdrawn tender, different arms of the government have issued six other tenders since 2014, all of them seeking to keep an eye on what users were posting on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

What Mitra’s petition argues

This is Mitra’s second such petition in the Supreme Court, and it argues that the proposed agency effectively plans to employ a ‘social listening tool’ to monitor social media platforms, and that the activity amounts to mass surveillance in contravention with several rights in the Constitution.

Violates fundamental rights 

“Such intrusive action on the part of the Government, is not only without the authority of law, but brazenly infringes her fundamental right to freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Such action of the Government also violates her right of privacy.”

Attempt at surveillance 

The tender document lays down that the one of tasks of the agency is to “employ a top-rated social listening tool to track and monitor online conversations relating to Aadhaar.” Mitra argues that the agency is “yet another attempt to mount surveillance on citizens.” The agency will also segregate online conversations into “problematic” and “non-problematic” and highlight incidents which may have a negative impact on the Aadhaar brand.

No law permits surveillance 

The Constitution provides that reasonable restrictions can be imposed by the state on the Right to Freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) only by a valid law. In this case, an agency proposed to be established by executive action cannot carry out surveillance activities, which would be an infringement of Article 19(1)(a). 

The stated objective of the proposed project which is to “raise awareness about Aadhaar, its usage and benefits” does not fall under a reasonable restriction.

Violates right to privacy 

In August 2017, the SC recognised the fundamental right to privacy in K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India. The judgment recognised the importance of an individual’s liberty to do things privately without being disturbed, observed or spied upon. 

Arbitrariness 

The petition argues that the state is attempting to use a backdoor to carry out monitoring activities which are not permitted by law, and places “unguided and uncontrolled discretionary power” to the executive. “The State is seeking to aggregate this power of information about individuals in its hands without authority of law and without any corresponding checks and balances on that power in the form of a data protection regime.”

UIDAI’s proposal for the social media agency’s tasks

UIDAI’s tender lays down the tasks that it wants from the contractors:

  • To track conversations, links and blogs about UIDAI, Aadhaar and other related issues and topics
  • To track sentiments and classify them into positive, neutral or negative
  • To use third party tracking tools to track the progress of each network
  • To report any discrepancy in sentiments
  • To draft plans to work out and neutralise negative sentiments
  • To submit effectiveness analysis weekly and/or monthly reports to UIDAI as required
  • To monitor various platforms and detect anomalies, segregate activities into problematic and non-problematic based on various keywords and give an informed forecast.
  • To highlight incidences which may have a negative impact on the Aadhaar brand

Read more about the quashed tender proposing a Social media Communications Hub here.