At the beginning of 1921, the central Home Ministry initiated a Cybercrime Volunteer Programme to enrol citizen volunteers to identify and report on social media posts whose contents are against the nation’s sovereignty, related to sexual abuse of women and children and attempts to disturb public order.
The Programme caused a few eyebrows to rise, and some rather miffed criticisms from concerned quarters, but it seems that the real import of the initiative and its implications have escaped the attention of the public at large.
According to the National Cybercrime Reporting Portal, cyber volunteers are expected to report content that violates any law in force in India. “Such content may fall under the 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 into 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 law enforcement agencies in ensuring action against crimes. During my sojourns in some advanced countries, I have seen how common citizens proactively inform the authorities about criminal activities, to help the latter take appropriate action.
If Indian citizens similarly come forward to assist the administration, it must be welcomed. However, any citizen can do so without the need for ‘registering’ as a volunteer.
The most serious concern about enlisting volunteers to watch cyberspace and report on suspected criminals is that these faceless volunteers, without any accountability, are likely to subscribe to a particular political or religious ideology and act as vigilantes to throttle the opinions of others, and dub utterances unpalatable to their political masters as anti-national or detrimental to the security of the state. .
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 into 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 ‘registered’ Cybercrime Volunteer informing the police about an alleged violation of one or more of the various types of crimes covered under the scheme, 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 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 about the first six categories.
Thus, if in the subjective opinion of a volunteer the contents of a social media post are 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 a future date prove to be a mere criticism of the 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 have been getting increasingly 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 on security, defence or external affairs, or on religious fundamentalism and 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 citizens in general 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 strengthens this apprehension and dread of the ‘authority’.
The case related to the Israeli spyware Pegasus comes to one’s mind in this respect. It was reported in May 2019 that this software was used to hack mobile phones to snoop on many Indian citizens, including journalists and human rights activists.
The Expert Committee set up by the Supreme Court has not been able to come to any final conclusion that the software was actually used on the target cell phones or not. The Union Government refused to cooperate with the Committee, while not denying or accepting that the spyware was actually used by some of its agencies. As the developer of the spyware has asserted that the product was sold only to government entities, one can only guess who the end-users in India could be.
The new scheme would, in all probability, add another armour to the authorities’ arsenal to closely monitor the citizens’ social media posts, and force them into submission based on 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 the country’s security, national interest and public order as well as protecting women and children from sexual exploitation.
In communist countries of yore and Nazi Germany, citizens were actively encouraged to spy on each other and report to the authorities any “suspicious” activities. The practice may be in vogue in some totalitarian countries even today.
Such a system of “keeping an eye, known as spying in simple language should be absolutely repugnant to any democratic country. That the government of India has such an ongoing programme in the name of maintaining law and order and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country is a bad omen for all conscientious citizens who believe that the freedom of speech, guaranteed by the Constitution, is one of the foundational pillars on which stands the entire edifice of the modern Indian state.