Why Indian Govt’s ‘Cyber Monitor’ Scheme Is Cause for Concern
Govt wants to register cyber monitors to flag online illegal/harmful content; but what rules / accountability apply?
“It is learnt that Civil Defence volunteers, who on their own have no power to prosecute, are doing so for COVID violations, and are mistaken for Delhi Police personnel. Misconduct, if any, is attributed to Delhi Police.”
The Delhi Police’s official Twitter handle tweeted this on the morning of Thursday, 11 February. Delhi’s Lieutenant-Governor and the Commissioner of Police were tagged in the tweet.
The tweet was rich in irony at many levels, not least for those who have been wondering about the Centre’s recent order asking volunteers in Tripura and in Jammu and Kashmir to register themselves as ‘cyber monitors’.
COVID Precautions Required
Since the Delhi Police has often set up traffic barricades in order to fine those not wearing masks on the roads — even those inside their cars with only their family, and with their windows rolled up — it surely does not have a problem with efforts to make citizens take precautions.
Measures such as the wearing of masks, and social distancing keep people protected to a certain extent from a raging global pandemic that has killed about 2.35 million worldwide over the past year.
The problem that the Delhi Police’s tweet flagged was not about taking precautions but more specifically about who has the authority to encourage citizens to do so.
More importantly, the tweet flagged the issue that any ‘misconduct’ by civil defence volunteers engaged in such encouragement gets ascribed to the police, and so spoils their reputation.
Misconduct seems to have been noted.
Expertise Should be Used
Keen observers of the situation with regard to Tripura and Jammu and Kashmir are similarly uneasy about the possibility of misconduct by some of those whom the government wants to register as monitors of cyber-space.
The government has invited three categories of cyber monitors: ‘Cyber Volunteer Unlawful Content Flagger’, ‘Cyber Awareness Promoter,’ and ‘Cyber Expert.’
Cyber experts will no doubt be trained to work on cyber forensics, malware analysis, etc. That makes sense, and the government ought to employ such experts as auxiliary staff with the district force.
Employing awareness promoters on a part-time basis, perhaps along the lines on which anganwadi workers are employed, also makes sense.
Employment through set procedures would make such paid ‘volunteers’ part of the system, and bring them under the purview of rules and regulations applicable to government staff.
Why the ‘Content Flagger’ Category is Cause for Concern
It is the ‘content flagger’ category, presumably the largest group, and with the least expertise, that is causing concern — very similar to the concerns expressed by the Delhi Police over Civil Defence volunteers’ efforts on COVID-related precautions.
The government wants to register cyber monitors to flag “online illegal/unlawful content like child pornography, rape/gang rape, terrorism, radicalisation, anti national activities, etc.”
It is however not clear what sort of rules, regulations, supervision, or norms of accountability will apply to them.
Why an Open Invitation to All Citizens is Needed
It would be much better for the government to issue an open invitation to all citizens to report objectionable cyber content at designated sites. These could then be investigated by the police and other authorities, so that action could be taken where necessary.
There is no doubt that the Internet has been used to radicalise youth in places like Kashmir, and to promote militant violence. This needs to be checked through sensitive de-radicalisation programmes at various levels, including the education system. Meanwhile, inflammatory content needs to be flagged and removed.
A Bad Precedent
However, registering specific persons with little training or accountability as ‘cyber monitors’ raises concerns about the sort of ‘misconduct’ to which the Delhi Police tweet referred.
People in Kashmir are keenly, and very unhappily, aware of a precedent of the misuse of power. When the army and the BSF worked with mercenary groups of former militants (often called ‘Ikhwan’) in Kashmir during the late ‘90s, many of those gangs engaged in gross abuses, extending to intimidation, extortion, kidnap, rape, and (in some cases) brutal murder, all on the basis of their connection with the armed forces.
Putting up notices in public places with telephone numbers that anyone with information could call proved to be a far more worthwhile and effective tool.
One is particularly concerned about the new initiatives since there are deep ethnic fault-lines in both the regions where the new move is to be initially implemented. In both, the ruling party draws strength from one religious or ethnic group, while the other is, to a large extent, alienated from it.
If some of the volunteers turn out to be biased, even subconsciously, they could deepen societal fissures.
At a political level, they could be viewed as agents of the Centre, if and when these places elect non-BJP governments.
That could set the stage for friction that could weaken the polity and the constitutional framework, even perhaps national unity.
What we need is the smoothy integrated functioning of the various layers of State authority, each keeping to its sphere of responsibilities.
The wider concern of course is that the Centre intends to extend this provision for registered cyber monitors to other states and union territories, perhaps the entire country. It is possible it might be used to empower a nationwide cadre of citizens close to whoever is in power at the Centre at a particular time.
Since an ever-increasing part of current-day life is lived on the internet, and one’s opinions and preferences are shaped and expressed there, a cadre of cyber monitors could (potentially) be extraordinarily effective in imposing a particular view of how fellow-citizens ought to live their lives, and what opinions are acceptable.
‘Anti-national’ activities is one of the areas cyber monitors have been asked to report.
This is a broad and evolving term, which is not clearly defined in law.
Recent Trends of Vigilante Action
Recent examples of vigilante action by groups that were mobilised through the Internet in the US underlines the need to check online mobilisation for terror or anti-State acts such as the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.
However, the signs that such groups sometimes seem to have covert support from State forces — not just volunteers but actual security personnel — underlines the need to ensure that monitoring is unbiased, strictly supervised, and unwaveringly committed to the Constitution and the rule of law.
For the very reason that such work is extremely important, it must be transparent and have adequate checks in place.
(David Devadas is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’ (OUP). He tweets @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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