SC’s ‘MSP’ for individual privacy

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By no stretch of imagination can it be said that the Supreme Court has fixed a price for the privacy of Indians, least of all an MSP, the bone of contention between the Modi government and the striking farmers. But Chief Justice SA Bobde has given an indicative price, which is higher than the USD 2-3 billion that social media giant WhatsApp makes from its operations. “People have grave concerns about their privacy. You may be a 2 trillion 3 trillion company. But the privacy of people is more important than your money,” the CJI told the counsel for the social media giant, which is seeking to defend its policy of allowing a lower priority for the privacy of Indian users, compared to that of Europeans. On the other hand, WhatsApp says it is only following the law of the land in Europe, which has a high level of privacy protection, while there is no such law in India that it is mandated to follow. Technically, the social media platform has a point, but that does not mean that Indian’s don’t value their privacy. Surely, the social media players do not operate in a vacuum and they are well aware of what is good or bad in the county that it operates. WhatsApp, which was to implement a new privacy policy from this month, has mercifully postponed the implementation to May, but it is more in deference to the loud protests by users and most importantly the strong stand taken by the courts.

Though IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad puts up a brave face before the social media platforms about the importance of safeguarding privacy of Indians who use their platforms, his own ministry has been making blatant violations of individual privacy in the name of state security, which is increasingly being used as a bogey to suppress dissent. In fact, the government has revived a move to set up a social media communications hub to monitor online data of social media users, after it was forced to shelve the controversial plan a couple of years ago. The public sector undertaking Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL) has re-floated an invitation for ‘Expression of Interest’ (EOI) for empanelling agencies which can track social media, monitor social media sentiments, segregate activities into ‘problematic’ and ‘non-problematic’, make content go viral, and perform a range of other activities. The platforms to be monitored include Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

But contrast that to the government’s ‘listening tool’, which is clearly a manifestation of the surveillance state that the Supreme Court had complained against. But Ravi Shankar Prasad and his team have no shame in attacking the social media platforms when it comes to privacy. The government’s obsession with social media makes one wonder whether the Indian state is so fragile to be destabilised by a negative tweet here or a post there or even a ‘toolkit’ by Greta Thunberg or Disha Ravi for that matter. The fear is more in the mind of the government functionaries like Prasad rather than any real danger to the nation and stems from a vulgar sense of insecurity.

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