In a very controversial move, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has launched a new programme that allows ordinary citizens to volunteer for “reporting on unlawful activities” on social media and online. In essence, the volunteers would report unlawful online content for removal. However, many internet activists have claimed that such a programme inspires and incentivises lateral surveillance.
The Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) under the MHA launched this programme to “bring together Indian citizens to serve the country and contribute to the fight against cybercrime”. The main objective of I4C is to create an ecosystem to “bring together academia, industry, public and government in prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of cybercrimes”.
Earlier, the central government and law enforcement agencies banked on the cyber police to handle cybercrime and monitor social media. Now, the government is allowing citizens to identify “unlawful content” online and report cybercrime to the government.
Reportedly, the Tripura Police had invited citizens to participate as cyber volunteers on November 28, 2020.
Following Tripura Police, the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police also invited citizens to sign up as volunteers for the same program in a press release on February 3, 2021. Indian citizens are allowed to volunteer for this programme under three categories — Cyber Volunteer Unlawful Content Flagger, Cyber Awareness Promoter, and Cyber Expert.
A Cyber Awareness Promoter will create awareness about cybercrimes among all Indian citizens irrespective of gender and age and those in the vulnerable category. A Cyber Expert will be working in areas such as cybercrime, forensics, network forensics, malware analysis, memory analysis, cryptography.
However, out of all three, Cyber Volunteer Unlawful Content Flagger has raised several eyebrows, as citizens registering under this group will be identifying illegal unlawful content such as rape, child pornography, terrorism, radicalisation, and anti-national activities among other things. These volunteers would be acting as informants and would be monitoring and reporting those who speak against the government/country.
According to reports, registering for the role of Cyber Volunteer Unlawful Content Flagger is there is no prior verification. On the other hand, there is background verification for Cyber Awareness Promoter and Cyber Expert roles. While registering, the terms and conditions clearly state that the volunteer should not use this programme for any commercial gain, nor will the volunteer be entitled to any monetary benefits. The state nodal officer has the right to take legal actions against volunteers violating the terms and conditions of the programme.
With questions surrounding free speech time and again, hiring private citizens with no understanding of legal speech could become a huge problem and can lead to vigilantism
There are some other issues with this programme as well. With questions surrounding free speech time and again, hiring private citizens with no understanding of legal speech could become a huge problem and can lead to vigilantism.
According to the National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal official website, unlawful content, in general, is content that violates any existing law in India. The website has given broad categories under which unlawful content may fall, such as content against sovereignty and integrity of India, against the defence of India, against the security of the state, against friendly relations with foreign states, content aimed at disturbing public order, disturbing communal harmony and child abuse material.
A private citizen conducting surveillance could lead to cyber vigilantism and create distrust within society. If someone is constantly monitoring your content, it could lead to constant suspicion and privacy issues
While the website advises volunteers to study Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, there are several grey areas and it leaves the discretion in the hands of the volunteers. If these volunteers follow a certain ideology, there is a chance that they could report content that is against their ideology or what they believe as unlawful content. There is also no proper definition for “anti-national” activities other than activities listed as punishable under Section 124A (Sedition) of the Indian Penal Code.
A private citizen conducting surveillance could lead to cyber vigilantism and create distrust within society. If someone is constantly monitoring your content, it could lead to constant suspicion and privacy issues. Another question raised by those who have come across this program is – When there are people directly reporting cybercrimes to the police or other law enforcement agencies then what is the need for such a programme?
There are also doubts regarding the authenticity of the reports, whether this programme would be used or rather misused to silence those who question the government. With social media being misused to spread fake news and fake claims, there are doubts if this programme would be misused to silence dissenters and censor people’s thoughts. The Internet Freedom Foundation, a non-profit organisation, has written to Union Home Minister Amit Shah asking him to halt the program immediately over concerns.