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Nearly 50 people were killed in the Muzaffarnagar sectarian riots last month. According to media reports, a fake video passed around through social media, contributed to flaming religious passions.

This prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to say that while people should have freedom to express their opinions, social media cannot be misused “to create communal tension and spread hatred”.

As Internet users rise globally, social media’s ability to mobilise people and influence public narratives has also grown. Many governments are increasing their surveillance of the Internet, often clashing with their commitments to free speech and privacy. After the global outrage over US surveillance, President Barack Obama told the UN General Assembly that his government will review its intelligence gathering practices.

India too should make a similar commitment. Instead of leaning towards greater restrictions and surveillance, India should address provisions in laws and rules governing the Internet that are already overbroad and ambiguous. These laws have been misused to arrest those critical of the government and put pressure on media companies to censor content. The government has even announced a centralised monitoring system to access all communications metadata and content on mobile phones and the Internet.

The Indian government already has the dubious honour of being second, after the US, in making the most requests for information on user accounts from Google, India’s most popular Internet search engine, and Facebook, the most popular social media network. According to Google’s latest transparency report for the period July to December 2012, the number of requests made by India spiked by 90% from the previous reporting period. The government has yet to explain its reasons for requesting such a massive trove of user data. Compounded by the absence of strong privacy protections, and the government’s haphazard record of protecting free speech, this is of serious concern.

While the government says it is motivated by threats to national security or law and order, the lack of transparency makes it difficult for the public to have any meaningful input or participate in an informed debate on whether these requests are in any way justified. This opacity is exacerbated as there is no single agency authorised to conduct surveillance, make requests for blocking content, or seek user data. According to some reports, nine agencies are empowered to conduct interception and Internet companies receive requests from multiple agencies.

If India is serious about protecting fundamental rights to privacy and free expression, it needs to make the system more transparent and build in robust, independent oversight mechanisms. Parliament should conduct a full review of current surveillance practices and periodically review the necessity and proportionality of surveillance programmes as a whole. Government requests for user communications or interception should be subject to judicial oversight.

The government should appoint a single body that processes all requests. This will help with reporting on aggregate data and increase accountability for the various agencies exercising powers for surveillance and intercepting information. The government should publish its own ‘transparency report’ releasing information on requests made for content removal and for user account information. India can and should take up this opportunity to lead the way on addressing legitimate concerns over the use of the Internet for illegal purposes while also meeting its international human rights obligations. 

Jayshree Bajoria is South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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