Starting with Tripura and Jammu & Kashmir, India’s home ministry has invited volunteers to monitor social media for ‘unlawful content’, such as ‘anti-national activities’, a move that experts warn may convert citizens into speech police and vigilantes
New Delhi: Until now, Indian law-enforcement agencies mainly relied on the cyber police to watch over social media or address online crime, but that is changing.
Following a similar 28 November 2020 move in Tripura, the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police on 3 February 2021 issued a press release inviting people to sign up as volunteers who would keep an eye on social media in “identifying online illegal/unlawful” content” and report cyber crime to the government.
The volunteers can register in any of three categories; ‘Cyber Volunteer unlawful content flagger’, ‘cyber awareness promoter’ and ‘cyber expert’.
A ‘cyber awareness promoter’ will help in “creating awareness about cyber crime among citizens, including vulnerable groups like women, children and elderly and rural population”, according to the press release. A ‘cyber expert’ will work in specific areas, such as cybercrime, forensics, network forensics, malware analysis, memory analysis, cryptography etc.”
But it is the role of ‘content flaggers’ that has attracted the attention of cyber experts and lawyers, who said they would effectively be informants about speech crimes in a programme that is likely to encourage vigilantism.
Citizens As Speech Police
The J&K police press release states that ‘content flaggers’ will identify “online illegal/unlawful content like child pornography, rape/gang rape, terrorism, radicalization, anti national activities etc. and reporting (sic) to government”.
“Having a citizen centric portal to report crimes child sexual abuse material or financial fraud is a required initiative,” said Mishi Choudhary, a technology lawyer in New York and founder of Software Freedom Law Center, India (sflc.in), an advocacy. “But turning the portal into a speech-police centre is reminiscent of tactics used in authoritarian regimes of turning family and friends into spies and outsourcing the role of a judge to lay persons.”
Kavita Krishnan, a civil rights activist and member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation alleged the police would hire private citizens “who are likely to belong to right-wing groups with no knowledge about what is legal speech”. She warned the move could “become a witch-hunt”, a reference to what happened in Uttar Pradesh (UP).
Under the administration of Yogi Aditynath of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), members of allied groups, such as the Bajrang Dal, have snitched on interfaith couples involving Muslim men and Hindu women. Vigilante groups peddle a fake theory of “love-jihad”, which claims that Muslim men seduce Hindu women to convert them to Islam.
In November, UP converted the love-jihad narrative into law, thus effectively curbing interfaith marriages, as Article 14 reported in December 2020, by making religious conversion for marriage a punishable offense, with imprisonment for up to 10 years.
Testbeds For Spying
The announcement in J&K comes nearly 18 months after the Indian government removed Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status by revoking Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, and at a time when the government has intensified a crackdown on the media and public dissent against the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Policies and tactics implemented to restrict freedom of expression across India have been deployed after use in J&K.
Journalists in Kashmir are frequently harassed and face police cases and summons, as Article 14 reported in September 2020. On 30 January , a case was filed against two local news portals for running a story—about a school that was pressured to celebrate Republic Day—which the army said was fake.
In July 2020, the J&K government launched a “media policy”, as we reported, that now allows authorities to block government advertisements, a major source of media revenue, to newspapers found involved in inciting “violence, question sovereignty and integrity of India or violate the accepted norms of public decency and behaviour”.
In the summer of 2020, the cyber wing of the J&K police was accused of summoning and interrogating dozens of social-media users for posting content critical of the government and army.
A student who was questioned back then for his tweets on human-rights violations in Kashmir said the new move would further silence Kashmiri social media users who already do “a lot of self-censorship”.
“Many people have already deactivated their accounts or turned anonymous, now we will see an increase in this trend,” said the student, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. He said the informants programme would boost those “already working for police”.
The police had quite a different view.
‘Everybody Is Very Happy’
Senior Superintendent Police Tahir Ashraf who heads the cyber wing of police in Kashmir described the new volunteer programme a “nice step”.
Ashraf told Article 14 that citizens “helping police” was “a very old practice”.
“If you visit any police station, there is a list of people whom we call friends of police,” said Ashraf. “You can call these volunteers friends of police, who will function as eyes and ears of police.”
How will a cyber volunteer be different from an ordinary citizen who also has the power to report a crime?
“In this case they are slightly better than an ordinary citizen,” said Ashraf. Cyber volunteers “being learned and well aware” can differentiate “between suspicious and real information”, he added.
Asked about the concerns of policing speech and vigilantism, Ashraf said: “The response from the public so far has been very positive. Everybody is so happy. Ultimately it is being done for public good.”
Wanted: Citizens With Passion
The cyber volunteer programme is a pan-India initiative started by Indian government’s ministry of home affairs (MHA) under the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre, or I4C, as it is called. Indian citizens can register as cyber volunteers on the National Cybercrime Reporting Portal.
The portal was initially launched as a pilot project in August 2019 and expanded in January 2020 when Home Minister Amit Shah inaugurated the I4C.
The objective of the initiative, according to the I4C, is “to create an ecosystem that brings together academia, industry, public and government in prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of cybercrimes” and brings together “citizens with passion to serve the nation”.
“Good Samaritans” can register as “Unlawful Content Flaggers” to help the authorities in “identifying, reporting and removal of illegal / unlawful online content”.
According to the MHA, “the scheme was approved in October 2018 at an estimated cost of Rs. 415.86 crore to deal with all types of cybercrimes in a comprehensive and coordinated manner”.
However, the MHA press release and the announcements in J&K and Tripura differ markedly, as the former does not mention that the volunteers would have to report “terrorism, radicalization, anti-national activities etc. and reporting to government”.
The portal’s specific focus, according to the MHA release, is on crimes against women, children, particularly child pornography, child sex abuse material, online content pertaining to rapes/gang rapes, etc.
“So far, more than 700 police districts and more than 3,900 police stations have been connected with this Portal,” the MHA release of January 2020 said, adding that 15 States and union territories have consented to establishing Regional Cyber Crime Coordination Centres.
Turning Neighbours Into Informants
Going by the J&K and Tripura Police announcements, the new initiative now expands into areas where ordinary citizens will be entrusted with policing speech.
“Where do you draw the line?” asked Prasanath Sugathan, legal director sflc.in. “It is a slippery slope and things become problematic when people are not trained to understand what is sedition and what is anti-national, terms so loosely used nowadays.”
The portal advises volunteers to study article 19—which deals with freedom of speech— of the Indian Constitution.
A volunteer has to abide by certain rules, including maintaining “strict confidentiality of task assigned/carried out by him /her, as a part of this program”.
“The programme effectively outsources surveillance to ordinary citizens,” said Suchitra Vijayan, barrister at law and director, the Polis Project, a research and journalism organisation based in New York. “This measure will further entrench the climate of fear and suspicion, turning neighbors into informants and collaborators with serious implications for article 19—this is a violation of freedom of speech and privacy.”
For registration as ‘cyber volunteer unlawful content flagger’, no prior verification is required. For registration as ‘cyber awareness promoter or cyber expert’, states or union territories will conduct prior verification, similar to a bank’s know-your-customer (KYC).
The volunteer must provide identity and address details, including mobile number, email address, while registering.
“Police should limit this to what the law allows for and change this overzealous approach to control the narrative,” Choudhary said. “Here the outsourcing of spying to volunteers chills everyone, and will you never know who you can trust.”
Vijayan believes that if the program is challenged in court it will fail the test laid out by the Supreme Court for online speech. She cited Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, 2015, when the Supreme Court of India struck down section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, relating to restrictions on online speech, as unconstitutional on the grounds of violating the freedom of speech guaranteed under article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
(Zafar Aafaq is a journalist based in New Delhi. His focus of reporting is human rights, minorities, digital tech, refugees.)