The Internet Freedom Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, on Wednesday asked the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, to recall a tender for creating a social media communications hub. The NGO said it would be “constrained to seek remedies in accordance with law” if this was not done. The tender is open till May 31.
The “social media analytical tool” will create digital profiles of citizens, ostensibly to gauge their opinions about official policies, as Scroll.in reported. The tool, according to the specifications of the bid document, should have the capacity to monitor a range of digital platforms: Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and blogs. The tool should also be able to “listen to” email. The government hopes to use this information to target individuals with personalised campaigns to promote “positive” opinions and to neutralise “negative sentiments” about government schemes.
The Internet Freedom Foundation called the project “illegal, unconstitutional and a violation of the right to privacy”. “The document clearly indicated that the proposed Social Media Communication Hub seeks to create technology architecture that merges mass surveillance with a capacity for disinformation,” reads the notice.
The analytical tool will also be able to understand “overall social media response to a message, tweet or data”. The tool, which will be able to monitor in all major Indian languages as well as several foreign ones, will use Natural Language Processing to “extract sentiment...as well as the context”. Natural Language Processing is a technology used by computers to understand the sentiment behind human communications.
The government also wants the analytical tool to perform a “predictive analysis” of potential headlines and breaking news in various channels and newspapers across the globe such as the New York Times, Economist and Time. The Centre aims to be able to influence global public perception due to such headlines and breaking news, the bid document says.
“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, how could the media blitzkrieg of India’s adversaries be predicted and replied/neutralised, how could the social media and internet news/discussions be given a positive slant for India?” the document says.
“Putting the entire online population of internet users in India who invariably will use the social media platforms and email for communication will have a tremendous chilling effect on their fundamental right to free speech and expression,” the foundation said in its letter.
The debate about data protection has grown louder over the past few months, ever since it was discovered that the UK-based political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had mined through the social media data of individuals, without their informed consent, to use it for political campaigning.