The central Home Ministry has initiated a Cybercrime Volunteer Programme to enroll citizen volunteers to identify and report on social media posts whose contents are against the sovereignty of the nation, related to sexual abuse of women and children and attempts to disturb public order.
According to the National Cybercrime Reporting Portal, the cyber volunteers are expected to report content that violates any law in force in India. “Such content may fall under following broad categories:
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 Public Order
vi. Disturbing communal harmony
vii. Child Sex Abuse material
On the face of it, it is not a bad idea to seek the citizens’ active cooperation to curb the menace of malicious posts that at times lead to offences against women and children, mislead the gullible into taking the law in their own hands, or help the enemies of the country to harm its sovereignty and integrity.
In fact, in a democratic country like India citizens should come forward on their own to assist the law enforcing agencies to ensure action against crimes. During my sojourns in some advanced countries, I have seen how common citizens proactively inform the authorities about criminal activities and the latter take appropriate action.
If Indian citizens similarly come forward to assist the administration, it must be whole-heartedly welcomed. However, every citizen can do so without the need for ‘registering’ as volunteers.
The major and most serious concern about enlisting volunteers to watch and report on cybercrimes is that these faceless volunteers, without any accountability, may subscribe to a particular political or religious ideology and act as vigilantes to throttle opinions unpalatable to their political masters. The country has witnessed notorious activities of such vigilante groups, which mushroomed in the last few years. It also brings to mind the ill-conceived “Salwa Judum”, the officially sponsored “citizens’ army” that had wreaked havoc in the tribal belt of Central India, ostensibly to assist the State in containing the Maoist insurgency.
In the case of over-zealous groups who take the law in their own hands to lynch fellow citizens for an “alleged violation” of law – say in respect of cow slaughter or selling beef – they at least face some police action, howsoever lenient, for the crime committed by them.
In the case of a Cybercrime Volunteer informing the police about an alleged violation of one or more of the various types of crimes covered under the scheme, the follow-up action will be taken by the police. The volunteer would remain faceless and would not be responsible if the allegation is later found to be false, or if reporting the so-called crime to the police turns out to be motivated purely by political vendetta, communal hatred or even personal grudge against the person reported upon.
The fear of misuse or even abuse of this scheme is strengthened when one looks at the list of cybercrimes that the volunteers would identify, flag and report on. There is no mention of the parameters against which the volunteer is to judge and decide if the contents of a particular post actually fall in the categories of the listed crimes, especially with regard to the first six categories.
Thus, if in the subjective opinion of a volunteer the contents of a social media post is against “the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, etc., etc.” the volunteer could report against that person. It is obvious that based on such complaints the writer of that post could be hauled over the coals for something that may at some future date prove to be a mere criticism of some policies of the government.
In India, thanks to the false but relentless ultra-nationalist propaganda against liberal thinkers, human rights activists and unbiased journalists, the demarcation between being anti-government and anti-national has been increasingly getting blurred. Of late, it has almost become a routine for the police to use the draconian sedition law against anyone criticising the government.
In such a scenario it is more than probable that the so-called Cybercrime Volunteers will flag as “guilty or suspicious” any social media post critical of government policies in respect of security, defence or external affairs, or on religious fundamentalism and such other issues. Such reports would provide enough excuse for the Police to swing into action against the originators of those posts, and those who share them.
Furthermore, from the list of the cybercrimes to be reported by volunteers, one suspects that the real motive behind the exercise is to browbeat and cower down the political opposition, rather than to punish those whose social media posts might disturb communal harmony, public order or are related to sexual abuse of women or children.
Besides the likelihood of the programme being used as a tool to stifle opposition, such spying – that’s what a volunteer under the scheme is supposed to do – would lead to further compartmentalisation of the society, and would actually work against the country’s integrity, which the programme seeks to protect by taking action against those who undermine it.
It is quite clear to anyone talking to the common people that there is a palpable sense of fear of the “big brother watching” everything. Most of them are afraid of speaking their minds. Repeated and systematic police action against journalists, free thinkers, academicians, student leaders and others who do not kowtow the government only strengthen this apprehension and dread of the ‘authority’.
It may not be out of place to recall that in May 2019 WhatsApp detected that the Israeli spyware Pegasus had been used by unknown entities to hack mobile phones to snoop on at least 1,400 Indians, including journalists and human rights activists. At that time it was revealed by the makers of the software – the NSO group of Israel – that they sold it only to State entities. The Indian authorities had denied using it, but such denials are generally accepted with a pinch of salt.
The new scheme would, in all probability, add another armour to the arsenal of the authorities to closely monitor the citizens’ social media posts, and force them into submission on the basis of some vague complaint from fellow citizens charged up by nationalist feelings. This will be a further assault on the common man’s constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression, all with the good intention of safeguarding national interest and public order as well as protecting women and children from sexual exploitation.
In communist countries and in Hitler’s Germany citizens were actively encouraged to spy over each other and report to the authorities any “suspicious” activities. It is possible that the practice is still in vogue in some totalitarian countries even today.
Such an idea should, however, be absolutely repugnant to any democratic country. That the government of India is in the process of implementing such a programme in the name of maintaining law and order, and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country is a bad omen for those who believe in the freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed by the Constitution.