Govt’s Cyber Volunteers Move Raises Social Media ‘Vigilante’ Fears

MHA’s programme has raised concerns about a chilling effect on speech as well as creating a digital vigilante class.

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Policy
3 min read
MHA’s programme has raised concerns about a chilling effect on speech as well as creating a digital vigilante class. Image used for representation. 
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As the controversial move by the Union Home Ministry to enlist ‘cyber volunteers’ to flag unlawful content, including anti-national posts, questions have been raised about its legality, scope and necessity.

According to the National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal under the Home Ministry (MHA), the Cyber Crime Volunteers Program is meant to, ‘bring together citizens with passion to serve the nation on a single platform and contribute in fight against cybercrime in the country’.

The portal specifies that the ‘volunteers’ will report to the government’s illegal and unlawful content, including posts that go against the sovereignty, integrity, defence and security of India.

According to an The Indian Express report, the programme will be piloted on a trial basis in Jammu and Kashmir, and Tripura, and that its scale would be calibrated depending on feedback.

Legal experts, digital rights activists and users have questioned the need to create a special category of people when any of the categories are already cognizable offences under law. Therefore anyone can report any content that qualifies as a crime.

Moreover, other concerns about the move having a chilling effect on speech as well as creating a digital vigilante class have also been raised.

MHA’s National Cyber Crime Portal

The National Cybercrime Reporting Portal comes under the MHA’s Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C). Union Home Minister Amit Shah inaugurated the Centre and the portal on 10 January 2020.

According to MHA, the scheme to setup I4C 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’.

The National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal, launched on a pilot basis in August 2019, has been envisaged by the MHA as ‘a citizen-centric initiative that will enable citizens to report cyber crimes online through the portal’.

So far, more than 700 police districts and more than 3,900 police stations have been connected with this portal, according to the Ministry.

What are the categories of posts that the ‘cyber volunteers’ will look to flag? According to the National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal, there are seven categories of unlawful content:

i. Against sovereignty and integrity of India

ii. Against defence of India

iii. Against security of the state

iv. Against friendly relations with foreign states

v. Content aimed at disturbing the public order

vi. Disturbing communal harmony

vii. Child sex abuse material

Concerns With Volunteer Process

There is, however, no further clarity on what specifically would count as going against the sovereignty or integrity of India.

Second, anyone can sign up to be a volunteer without any need for prior verification of credentials or qualifications. “For registration as ‘cyber volunteer unlawful content flagger’, no prior verification (KYC) is required,” the portal states.

Interestingly, to enlist as a ‘cyber awareness promoter’ a prior verification (KYC) will be carried out, the portal clarifies.

In order to register as a volunteer one simply needs to submit ones phone number, resume, ID proof, address proof, and phone number. There is no separate qualifying process or interview thereafter.

Good samaritans are welcome to register as cyber crime volunteers in the role of unlawful content flaggers for facilitating law enforcement agencies in identifying, reporting, and removal of illegal/unlawful online content.
National Cybercrime Reporting Portal  

Legal Concerns

The controversial move has raised a range of questions from legality to the necessity of such a move.

“The offences listed for the volunteers are all cognizable offences anyway,” said Prasanna S, supreme court advocate. “Any person can report to the police regarding a cognizable offence, so what is the purpose of creating a separate class of volunteers,” he said.

Prasanna explains, just like people refer to activists as RTI activists even though any person can file an RTI. Similarly, what is the purpose for creating special volunteers to report cognizable offences that any person on social media can flag anyway, he explains.

The government does not yet have any clear legal framework on what constitutes anti-national content or activity, and often uses provisions under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to either detain or jail those accused of ‘anti-national’ activities.

A technology lawyer said this move would also work towards establishing a sort of ‘cyber vigilantism by creating vigalante volunteers, similar to what has been seen on the ground regarding inter-faith marriages and ‘love Jihad’.”

A senior lawyer, who deals in cybercrime cases, had told The Indian Express there are no legal definitions of anti-national content or activity, either by the government or the judiciary, which creates a ‘big grey area’.

“Secondly, giving people the option to report fellow citizens gives too much power without adequate checks and balances. What if I report you and get it reported by multiple people to settle my differences with you?” the lawyer said.

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