Regulators

MIB social media monitoring cell tender deadline extended

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NEW DELHI: The Big Brother has arrived? Well the Indian government, being accused of proposing to unleash a surveillance of citizens, has gone in for another extension of the deadline seeking vendors for technical and logistics help to set up such a center.

The new date for submitting proposals for Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB)’s Social Media Communications Hub is now 18 June 2018, which is the third revision of the deadline since tender was floated earlier this year inviting proposals, enumerating wide-ranging deliverables.

Under criticism from a section of the civil society and online journalists and activists for this proposed over Rs. 400 million surveillance project, both MIB and BECIL (a unit under the ministry) have maintained a stoic silence.

The project, first reported by Indiantelevision.com in January 2018 and being undertaken under a seemingly harmless name of Social Media Communications Hub, however, has aims to monitor in real times not only the social media and online activities of Indian citizens, but also seeks to deploy technology to predict behavior and possible future actions of people. This, at a time when India doesn’t have strong data protection laws.

Amongst the many listed objectives of the media hub is this: “What would be the headlines and breaking news of various channels and newspapers across the globe--- could be done with knowledge about their leanings, business deals, investors, their country policies, sentiment of their population, past trends etc. NYT, Economist, Time etc. are good examples, what would be the global public perception due to such headlines and breaking news, how could the public perception be moulded in positive manner for the country, how could nationalistic feelings be inculcated in the masses, how can the perception management of India be improved at the world for a how could the media blitzkrieg of India’s adversaries be predicted and replied/neutralized, how could the social media and internet news/discussions be given a positive slant for India.”

One of the many critics of this project is the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), which has sent a notice to the MIB to stop the project, failing which the organization would take legal action. Its concerns? “Social Media Communication Hub will also have the ability to broadcast content without any legal authority or guidance through 20 central and 716 district level social media executives. In sum, this is a system of control through surveillance and a capacity to spread propaganda,” the Foundation said in an online campaign.

The Foundation’s letter to MIB minister Rajyavardhan Rathore, sent last week, criticizes the government move on the ground that“the wider project to surveil social media is illegal and unconstitutional, being contrary to the right to privacy and freedom of speech and expression”.

Urging the ministry to withdraw the requests for proposal invited by BECIL, the IFF said, “The RFP document clearly indicates that the proposed Social Media Communication Hub seeks to create a technology architecture that merges mass surveillance with a capacity for disinformation. It is a perilous expense on the exchequer, given that an exorbitant amount of [Rs] 42.4833 crores (approximately Rs. 42 million) is being earmarked for a project that will undermine our fundamental rights.”

Meanwhile, MIB is also seized of the fate of a committee set up by former minister Smriti Irani to propose regulations for online media. Though Rathore in recent times has spoken of self-regulation of media, in general, he hasn’t yet articulated the government view on the committee, which critics say was beyond the remit of the MIB.

Indiantelevision.com learns from government sources that the online regulation committee has already held few informal meetings, though non-governmental organisations, seeking to be part of it, were not invited.

While some media industry organisations were named by the government to be part of this online regulation committee, many others like the internet and mobile association of India, Broadband Forum India and Asian media body CASBAA have, reportedly, sent in formal requests to be made part of this government committee, which, interestingly, doesn’t include a single online venture or body.

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