A digital prison for the mind

The Social Media Communication Hub builds a technical architecture for censorship and thought control

Eda Akaltun ©

“A building circular… The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference — The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence — The whole circuit reviewable with little, or… without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.”

Jeremy Bentham, Proposal for a New and Less Expensive mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts (London, 1798)

While many know Jeremy Benthan as the utilitarian philosopher behind the often debated maxim of political science, “greatest happiness of the greatest number”, there are portions of his thought that would have left a number of individuals very unhappy. One of the practical demonstrations of his thought was his close to two decades long advocacy of the architecture of a panopticon.

This panopticon would serve as a prison in which a central guard tower in the centre would be at all times be able to view the prisoners. Even though each guard only had two eyes, the central tower housing them was purposefully opaque, thereby preventing prisoners from figuring out who was under watch. This created a system of total and perpetual surveillance. The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting recently released a tender for the Social Media Communication Hub that aims to monitor our social media, watching it all day and night, in a way creating a digital panopticon.

The hub and spoke model for censorship

The Social Media Communication Hub has two primary functionalities. The first is to conduct surveillance on people and the second is to tailor specific content to influence them. The Scope of Work clearly states in its very first sentence that it requires, “a technology platform to collect Digital Chatter from all core Social Media Platforms as well as digital platforms”. Such mass collection of data is available to a granular, individual level as it further states in the second para that, “should also support easy management (sic) of conversational logs with each individual with capabilities to merge it across channels to help facilitate creating a 360 degree view of the people who are creating buzz across various topics”. Specific capabilities include live search, monitoring, collecting, indexing and storage of personal data from all social media platforms which are specifically mentioned, but also email, “maximum meta-data”, and as separately mentioned, even location-based data.

The second functionality indicates a worrying tendency towards disinformation as there exists an unguided, if even dangerous ability to post and publish content on the basis of surveillance. The tender mentions that the “platform maybe used to disseminate content and hence should support publishing features”. This is further substantiated in the section on “Pre and Post establishment support”, which states that the team of the SMEs are expected to, “create and publish content on various social media platforms of Ministry of I&B”. Appendix 4 which further contains their roles and responsibilities states that it includes, “publishing content as assessed [by the] Ministry of Information and Broadcasting”. In addition to this 716 district wise SMEs are expected to conduct, “social media publicity”.

These functionalities have been built out in the absence of any underlying parliamentary legislation that would have been put to debate and public scrutiny. Rather curiously the ministry through the Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited floated a tender rather than seeking any clear legal sanction. On their very face and by express statements within RFP the Social Media Communication Hub will conduct mass surveillance of users on social media and even through private modes such as email. This is against any legitimate state goal, violates the principles of proportionality and necessity as articulated in the unanimous 9-Judge verdict of the Hon’ble Supreme Court restating the fundamental right to privacy. Even posts on social media platforms or blogs cannot be generally gathered and catalogued by the State, as noted specifically by Justice Kaul in the judgement, “Thus, for e.g. , if the posting on social media websites is meant only for a certain audience, which is possible as per tools available, then it cannot be said that all and sundry in public have a right to somehow access that information and make use of it.”

More worryingly, there are zero limitations or protections for individuals contemplated under the RFP. This will violate multiple facets of the right to privacy including informational determination, consent, purpose limitation and collection limitation. As stated in the RFP repeatedly the collection is agnostic to purpose and only general guidelines are provided to, “instill nationalistic feelings”, which all to be determined on the, “directions of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting”. Due to concerns, illegalities and affronts to the fundamental right to privacy a notice was sent by the Internet Freedom Foundation calling on the Government to cease this project immediately.

Need for a data protection law

“Traditionally, power was what was seen, what was shown, and what was manifested…Disciplinary power, on the other hand, is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is this fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.”

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)

The Social Media Communications Hub is symptomatic of the desire of government to exercise power over individuals. Given that personal data can be used in a digital environment to determine allowances, entitlements and functionality, people need to be put back in control through a user rights focused data protection law. One attempt to articulate this in the form of a civil society model draft the Indian Privacy Code, 2018 under the SaveOurPrivacy campaign which is being supported by the Internet Freedom Foundation. This draft expressly states that it will apply equally to government as well as private companies. One of the core features of this citizen’s draft is that it articulates seven core principles which put individuals at the centre of a data protection law. This is then articulated and applied through doctrines such as purpose limitation, necessity and proportionality. These doctrines of data protection would be applied by a regulatory body such as the Privacy Commission which would be empowered to pass orders and restrain misconceived programs such as the Social Media Communications Hub.

Without such a credible data protection law we run the risk of being trapped into cycles of episodic outrage than working towards credible policy solutions. Many government programs are made with the best intentions for greater social order but undermine individual rights. Here rests an important lesson.

Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon through a devilish architecture was also proposed by him out of paternal state care rather than forms of oppression. Similar supervisory architecture was proposed for kindergartens, old age homes and mental health institutions. These were astutely analysed by Michel Foucault as a system of policing bodies, by creating an architecture of power over which people have little or no control. It is plain to see that the social media communication hub despite the best of intentions of the Government will be nothing more than an instrument to police our minds. India urgently requires a user rights based data protection and privacy law to halt such programmes which are challenging the republican and democratic basis of our society.

(An edited version of this article was published on June 10, 2018 in the Deccan Herald)

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