You are reading it here first: The government now wants to build a central cloud-based tool to monitor TV channels and other exclusive services offered by cable TV providers. The surveillance tool should be able to identify the broadcasting of “unauthorised” content on TV channels using artificial intelligence, and flag them for recording which can later be used as legal evidence.

The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, through Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL), earlier this week floated a tender to empanel an agency that can develop this central monitoring tool. The last date of submitting bids is November 11. On paper, the TV monitoring tool should address three main issues:

  • Monitor TV channels including platform services (which are offered by platform operators exclusively to their own subscribers)
  • Check whether mandatory channels of public broadcaster Prasar Bharti are being aired
  • Whether channels not permitted by the government are being aired.

What this could mean

The government’s argument is that currently, there is no system in place to “regularly monitor” whether TV operators adhere to rules for the operation of cable television network laid down in the Cable TV Network Act. The Act, among other things, prohibits TV broadcasters from showcasing content or advertisements that could create disharmony between communities on the basis of religion, race, language, cast, or other grounds. It is possible that government aims to keep an eye on any such content being aired on TV using the proposed online monitoring tool, as its primary mandate is to flag “unauthorised” content.

This gains significance in the backdrop of right-leaning news channel Sudharshan News wanting to air an episode called “UPSC Jihad” on the supposed rise in number of Muslims in the civil services. The episode had faced significant backlash on social media for trying to portray the appointment of people from the Muslim community in civil services as a grand conspiracy. When the matter came up for hearing in the Supreme Court, the central government instead insisted on cracking down on digital news before blocking content on broadcast media, and allowed the channel to broadcast the controversial episode.

More recently, Union I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar questioned the efficiency of a self-regulatory code that most news channels in India currently adhere to, as opposed to print media which is regulated by the Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial body.

The tasks of the central monitoring tool

The online monitoring system will be a cloud-based service, and the cloud service provider should be registered with the IT Ministry. Separately, the project will also involve the installation of field units at Multi System Operators (MSO) locations. An MSO basically operates multiple cable or direct broadcast satellite TV systems. The field units will send all relevant data to the monitoring system. Other tasks of the tool:

  • It should be able to generate reports based on several areas, and have a built-in Geographical Information System so that authorised personnel can view the several field units in their area.
  • It should be possible to drill down into any filed unit and see the series of recordings made on that unit and also a time log of any other events.

Who can bid?

The bidder should have been in the business for the last five years as on September 2020, and have an average turnover of ₹10 crore per annum in the last three consecutive financial years (FY 2016-17, FY 2017-18 and FY 2018-19). Bidders, apart from those classified as MSMEs, should have a positive net worth in the each of the last three financial years

It will be the selected company’s responsibility to ensure that the field units that haven’t provided data to the monitoring tool for more than 24 hours are immediately flagged to BECIL or the I&B Ministry, apart from alerting the concerned MSOs.

Social media surveillance tool in the works

The government seems to be developing a number of tools to keep an eye on content on TV and social media. Of note is that BECIL is also currently in the process of developing a central social media monitoring tool, which will track individual social media users, and also their “sentiments”. Before that, it had floated a tender to develop a similar tool, just under the garb of detecting fake news online.

The is the ninth attempt of the government to surveil social media. Two years ago, it was forced to withdraw a tender after the Supreme Court likened it to a move toward a “surveillance state”. The currently-proposed hub is expected to monitor individual social media users, and track overall trends on various social media platforms, among other things.

Alarmingly, it will also “crawl” through paid and private social media data, monitor social media trends and “sentiments”, and track trends relevant to “government related activities”, which “may have adverse negative impact on socio-economic fabric of the society”.

Before this, BECIL had floated an expression of interest document, seeking to empanel an agency which provides “solutions and services” related to “fact verification and disinformation detection on social media platforms”. It was essentially an effort to surveil social media under the guise of detecting fake news.

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