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The Supreme Court on Friday, July 13, said that Modi government’s decision to set up a social media hub for monitoring online data is “like creating a surveillance state”.

The remarks came when a Supreme Court bench of CJI Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud was hearing a PIL moved by a Trinamool Congress MLA Mahua Moitra against the Central government’s proposed move to set up a ‘Social Media Communication Hub’.

Under the proposed move, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B Ministry) is to set up a mechanism at the district-level for collecting and analysing digital and social media content.

Appearing for TMC MLA Mahua Moitra, senior advocate AM Singhvi said the government has issued a request for proposal and the tender will be opened on August 20. “They want to monitor social media content with the help of this social media hub,” PTI quoted Singhvi as saying.

Singhvi said this would give government access all data on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and emails and the move was completely violative of the right to privacy and would be invasive of the fundamental rights.

Justice DY Chandrachud then observed: “Tracking and regulating social media content will transform us into a surveillance state.”

Subsequently, the bench agreed to examine the matter and sought assistance of Attorney General KK Venugopal. It also issued a notice, calling for a formal reply from the Ministry concerned.

The Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL), a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) under the I&B ministry, had floated a tender to supply a software for the creation of a Social Media Communication Hub. “A technology platform is needed to collect digital media chatter from all core social media platforms as well as digital platforms such as news, blogs… In a single system providing real-time insights, metrics and other valuable data,” the tender document said

Under the project, media persons would be employed on contractual basis in each district to be the “eyes and ears” of the government and provide real-time updates from the ground. According to the tender document, the platform is expected to provide automated reports, tactical insights and comprehensive work-flows to initiate engagement across digital channels.

“The platform maybe used to disseminate content and hence, should support publishing features,” the document says, adding the platform needs to power a real-time New Media Command Room,” the tender document said

It said it will enable the ministry “to grasp the effect of various social media campaigns conducted on various schemes run by the Government of India” to “improve the scope” of such campaigns and “to make a specific theme trending”.

It is to be noted that the issuing diktats against the media has become a regular affair at the I&B Ministry. Not very long ago, the ministry had to pull out a notification mandating punishment to journalists on the basis of mere allegations of “fake news” through withdrawal of their accreditation – a government-issued badge that allows them access to government ministries and other offices.

A separate matter relating to WhatsApp licensing policy is also pending in the Court where the moot contention is again about letting the service provider read the content before passing it on to the recipient.

In that batch of matters, the Court had observed that the 2017 ruling on the right to privacy will have a huge impact on any attempt to regulate social media.

The court listed the matter for further hearing on August 3.

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