The Union Home Ministry has embarked on a perilous path with a new programme that invites citizen volunteers to police online content. An MHA circular on the scheme, which will be piloted in Jammu and Kashmir and Tripura, asks volunteers to flag and report child sexual abuse, rape, terrorism, “radicalisation” and “anti-national” activities. This is overreach on numerous counts. To begin with, the existing legal framework does not define what constitutes “anti-national” activity. It is imprecise and arbitrary and there’s a formidable body of evidence to show how this has been weaponised. Licensing ordinary people, without any locus standi, to decide what qualifies for that label is an invitation, even exhortation, to misuse and harassment. Second, no statutory backing exists for such a volunteer force, nor is it clear what need it might serve. Third, even if the ministry’s stated mission is to counter cyber-crime, it cannot outsource a fundamental state responsibility to a rag-tag corps of volunteers, who will wield disproportionate power to scrutinise fellow citizens on social media without any accountability whatsoever. What stops this programme from turning into a weapon of personal/political vendetta? Fourth, making citizens vulnerable to such unofficial surveillance and scrutiny is a violation of their fundamental rights to freedom of speech and expression and privacy. Fifth, by turning citizen against citizen, it risks deepening polarisation and mistrust in society. Finally, it also ignores the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court, when it comes to criminalising online speech. The court, while striking down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, had ruled that a distinction must be made between speech that is simply “offensive or annoying” and that which is guilty of inciting a disruption of public order, or violence.
The programme is just one more example of the anxiety over social media narratives that is pushing governments to encroach steadily on free speech. From Bihar’s recent blanket gag on online criticism of the state government to Uttarakhand police’s decision to scan social media for “anti-national” posts to the now rescinded Kerala government ordinance that would have made “defamatory” social media posts punishable by a prison term, the internet appears to trigger the political class’s Big Brother reflex with disturbing frequency. It is, of course, true that nearly all high-stakes political contests today are being waged on the internet, from farmers’ protest to electoral battles. Social media is both an avenue of mobilisation as well as prone to capture by purveyors of propaganda and hate. But for the Union home ministry to midwife a proxy force to police ordinary citizens on the internet, to give the weaponisation of social media the imprimatur of government authority, is disquieting.
In times when an army of vigilantes entitled to their right to be offended grows in strength and when the overzealous state slaps sedition charges against journalists and students, such a move will only go on to normalise the suspicion and persecution of citizens exercising their right to disagree, dissent or even annoy others. Without basis in law, undemocratic in spirit, this reckless initiative must be withdrawn immediately.