Following a major backlash on social media, the NDA government has decided to withdraw a draft proposal which would have made it an offence if any social media content initiated by individuals were deleted within 90 days of being posted on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp.
The proposal, now reversed, had come as part of the draft national encryption policy where the larger idea seemed to be that the government must have access to social media content, even if encrypted, for a minimum period of 90 days, presumably so as to keep a tab on criminals and terrorists – but also dissenters and their activities. On the face of it, it seems utterly unreasonable to force individuals to preserve the content they post on social media so that the police can review it should they want to. Besides being totally impractical, the idea smacked of undue interference by the state in the way individuals may want to use the Internet.
On Tuesday, Telecom and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad appeared rather apologetic and said the proposed restriction was never meant for individual users of social media and therefore stood withdrawn. However, there is still some ambiguity left as to whether it was relevant for entities other than individuals. After all, could whatever individuals post on the social media be preserved and shared with the state agencies at an institutional level? Is that what the government will eventually insist on? This question remains mired in some confusion.
The larger issue is that the NDA government, of late, has shown a pronounced tendency to use use a sledgehammer to kill a fly. This could be the result of a growing paranoia caused by rising political dissent which this government seems to be encountering rather early in its tenure.
The most blatant instance of the NDA trying to control social media in an unprecedented manner is in Gujarat where the massive mobilisation of the Patidars by Hardik Patel led to a full week’s black out of Twitter and Facebook. Even email and WhatsApp could not be operated in 26 districts of Gujarat.
A senior bureaucrat based in Gujarat told me the manner in which all 26 district magistrates coordinated their actions to use Section 144 (assembly of more than four people declared unlawful) by itself could be subjected to higher legal scrutiny. Normally, a DM assesses the law and order situation specific to his or her district in order to impose section 144. But such a coordinated imposition of section 144 by 26 districts of Gujarat and the simultaneous application of the Information Technology Act to block the Internet for a week has not happened even in an insurgency prone state like Jammu and Kashmir. There has never been a statewide, blanket blocking of all social media in Kashmir. If anything, this is a great tribute to Hardik Patel whose political mobilisation created such a ham-fisted response from the state agencies. Now the Patidars are going to protest against Narendra Modi in New York, far away from the jurisdiction of Section 144.
The NDA experiment of blocking the Internet statewide is indeed a dangerous precedent in our democratic evolution. It demonstrates the state’s ability to switch off the Internet through the ingenuous use of section 144. The Gujarat High Court upheld this draconian exercise but it will not go unchallenged in the Supreme Court. Censorship of the social media, which is increasingly being used to mobilise political opinion, remains a very tricky terrain. Indeed, we are learning everyday from the way the state uses various methods to block content and connectivity.