The Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has said that it does not have records of specific correspondence within the government on the basis of which it took a decision to float a tender to create a social media monitoring tool that will create digital profiles of citizens, ostensibly to gauge their opinions about official policies.
It said this in response to a right to information application.
The ministry said that the tender was floated as part of one of its approved schemes on media infrastructure, even through the original documents of the scheme do not mention the launch of such a tool.
The plea, filed with the ministry on May 30 by Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, had asked specifically for correspondence, file notings and other official documents on the basis of which the ministry took the decision to float the tender regarding this proposal. The petitioner had also asked for copies of the email correspondence regarding the tender between the ministry and the public sector unit that floated the bid.
The ministry, headed by Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, provided neither.
Scroll.in had first reported in May that the Union government wanted to monitor historical conversations of social media users, including their emails, create their “360 degree” profiles and target them with personalised messages to promote positive opinions and to neutralise negative sentiments about government schemes.
On April 25, the information and broadcasting ministry had floated a tender, through its public sector unit Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited, to hire an agency to create the tool.
On July 11, while hearing a public interest litigation that challenged the ministry’s move, the Supreme Court said that such monitoring of social media by the government would be like creating a “surveillance state”.
The information and broadcasting ministry tender did not specify if the government would take the consent of the social media users before monitoring or using their data. It was also not clear from the documents what measures would the government take to prevent the misuse of such data.
SC hearing coming up
According to government rules, any tender by a government body is floated only after approval from its top authorities. The records of all correspondence for such approval are maintained in the form of file notings.
The ministry did not respond to Nayak’s Right to Information application within the mandatory 30-days period, as required by the law. It issued a response only after he filed an appeal. “Floating of RFP [Request for Proposal or Tender] is being done by BECIL [Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited] on the basis of approved MIDP [Media Infrastructure Development Programme] scheme of the ministry. The documents relating to MIDP is available on the website of this ministry,” the ministry’s response said.
But the document related to the Media Infrastructure Development Programme that is available online does not talk about any such monitoring of social media users.
About the email correspondence with Broadcast Engineering Consultants India, the ministry said “no such record is available”.
The ministry also said it was yet to sign a formal agreement regarding a project on social media listed among the ongoing projects on the Broadcast Engineering Consultants India website. Scroll.in could not independently confirm if the tender for social media monitoring was part of the same project.
On August 3, the Supreme Court will hear the petition that has challenged the proposed social media monitoring project on grounds of violation of privacy.
India does not yet have a law to ensure data protection or to define the process of obtaining consent from individuals before using their data. A government-appointed committee made recommendations on July 27, which some legal experts decried as a blow to the idea of consent and the right to privacy.